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I have a four-year-old granddaughter with beautiful curly hair. I had put it in braids and was in the store with her, and an older man came up and flipped the braids, commenting on her hair. I just smiled and she seemed uncomfortable. I've had my hair touched by strangers for all my life, and learned to let it go. I want to help her learn differently, to know how to speak up.

I want to make sure that she learns that it is ok to speak up, and I believe that she will learn to do so if I speak up for her now. I'm also sure that this wasn't a one-off, that other people will continue to try to touch her hair, very often older men. Next time, I want to speak up for her, but not to offend, but just to let them know that times have changed.

How can I remind strangers of boundaries, to let both my granddaughter and the guy know that little girls have a right to choose who touches them, but not make it a huge embarrassing deal for the guy, who is almost surely not meaning to offend but is trying to compliment?

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    I think this is a really good question, but the actual question doesn't entirely match your title. Perhaps you could change it to something like "How to let someone know their compliment makes you uncomfortable"? – scohe001 Mar 19 at 18:43
  • I edited your question to remove "what phrases can I use" because requesting phrasing is off topic – Rainbacon Mar 19 at 18:59
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    In addition to Rainbacon's edit: Is this mostly about reminding the strangers (in the hopes that your granddaughter learns to speak up?) or specifically teaching (encouraging?) your granddaughter to speak up, like the title states? There's a bit of a difference in how to approach either of these, as the first one doesn't necessarily involve interacting with the granddaughter and the second one doesn't necessarily involve interacting with the stranger... So it would be great if you could clarify this a bit further, so we can either think of a better title or phrasing for the body. – Tinkeringbell Mar 19 at 19:02
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    @Tinkeringbell - I think that by speaking up to the stranger, in front of the child, will help her learn how to speak up herself. So the interaction needs to involve them both, I think. But mostly, I want her to learn how to speak up, to know it's ok to say something. – thursdaysgeek Mar 19 at 19:04
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The best way to get your granddaughter to learn that it is ok to speak up is to talk with her about it, and then reinforce that conversation with your actions. I'll start my answer by covering why it is important to talk to your granddaughter and then I'll cover how to reinforce what you've talked about.

Speaking to your granddaughter

The most important thing you can do is to talk to your granddaughter about consent. The goal that you should have in mind is teaching her that she is in control of her body, and that others should ask before they touch her. Children learn what behavior is acceptable from those around them. As someone who learns acceptable behavior in a similar way to children (being on the autism spectrum, my social prowess often mirrors that of a child), I can say that an important part of learning what is acceptable is to have an authority figure (parent, grandparent, etc...) explicitly tell me that something is okay.

After you've talked with her about the fact that she is allowed to speak up, help her practice it. Studies have shown that practicing actions actually has an physiological effect on the brain, which makes those action become more automatic in the future.

Speaking up for a child

The only thing that is more important than hearing that it is okay to speak up is seeing that it is okay. It's a common trope that parents will tell their children "do as I say, not as I do" when they do things that they wouldn't want their children to do. The reason for this is that children learn by copying what they see done. One research study found children were highly likely to copy the behavior they say.

Of the 24 month olds that saw the video of the toy being taken apart, 90 percent took the toy apart just like the person in the video but of those would didn’t see the person take the toy apart, only 20 percent took it apart on their own.

What this means is that you are correct in your belief that seeing you speak up will help her understand that it is okay to be assertive about when others touch her.

but not make it a huge embarrassing deal for the guy

I'm going to issue a small frame challenge here. You've said that you don't want the encounter to be embarrassing for the guy, but I believe that's the wrong approach to take. As I've mentioned, children learn from seeing. If she sees you trying to accommodate how the other person feels when standing up for her, she will do the same. When someone violates her boundaries, she needs to know that it doesn't matter if saying something embarrasses them. If she learns that she should try to minimize the impact on others when standing up for herself, she won't learn to stand up for herself.

When you do say something to someone that touches her, be specific that you are talking about consent.

Excuse me, did she say that you could touch her hair? Then why did you do it?

As a man, I can say that the last thing I want in the modern age is to be seen as someone who violates a woman's boundaries. I've never touched anyone without their permission, but I have made some regrettable comments that I can unfortunately never get back. There is no worse feeling than getting called for a mistake like that, and it's a really good way to learn (I haven't made the mistake I referenced again).

As a final note. If you really do feel bad for embarrassing him, you could take him aside when your granddaughter isn't paying attention and explain that you meant no harm to him, and that you're just trying to teach her to stand up for herself.

  • I fully agree with this answer, though I have a word of caution. As you say, "There is no worse feeling than getting called for a mistake like that" but unfortunately not everyone is going to handle this feelings nicely in the heat of the moment. I can see how someone could get not only embarrased, but violently angry because of, which is a situation it's not going to be pretty for anyone involved. I would say almost the same sentence you wrote, but pretending being the child: "Hey! Don't touch my braids!", while half-faking annoyement. By making it funny you lessen the aggresiveness. – Rekesoft Mar 21 at 12:38
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I mainly remember my parents doing these for my younger brother, but I'm assuming they did this for all three of us kids when they wanted to involve a kid in something and let them know it was okay to speak out. There are two ways of doing it, and which one you take depends on how shy your grandchild is.

If she's really shy, split up the approach at first. You address the stranger in the shop:

We appreciate the compliments, but she doesn't really like having her hair touched.

State this as a matter of fact, because you're standing up for her. After that, work on the boundaries when arriving home with your grandchild, by asking her if she did like having her hair touched, and assuring her it's okay to speak up just like you did if she did mind having her hair touched.

After a while, when you feel she's got a good enough grasp of this, you can even involve her in speaking up to the stranger, by asking a specific question addressed to her:

As much as we appreciate the compliments, she looked pretty uncomfortable there. I don't think she liked having her hair touched. Did you like having your hair touched, Tink?

Here, you give your grandchild the 'task' of making this a statement of fact. That way, she learns to make the statement 'I don't like having my hair touched' herself. Make sure to give the language that follows up on 'I don't think she liked' a tweak that is appropriate for the level of understanding a four-year-old has.

Take care though: your granddaughter might've looked uncomfortable because she actually was, or because she's a bit overwhelmed with the stranger in general. If it's the second, she might also feel too shy to answer the direct question when the stranger is still present. In that case, let her be when she's too shy and revert back to working on this at home. Don't force her to answer, but make sure to give her praise (perhaps not when the stranger can hear) when she does!

I'm guessing you know her best, but as a warning to every other custodian thinking of using this approach: be prepared for a child to say 'no' to a specific question like 'did you not like having your hair touched', for a reason you totally don't expect. If she's overwhelmed with the stranger, she might not be able to say it, but she might say it wasn't because he touched her hair.

The responses to the strangers that my parents used also lead by example by showing assertiveness (and a bit of politeness), which is great for enforcing boundaries: You're respecting the good intent from the stranger, while also letting them know they've just crossed a (possible) boundary. While you're basically saying the stranger did something wrong, you're avoiding being accusatory by using words like "we", "I", "she", instead of directly addressing the stranger with a "you did".

There's a lot more stuff you can do to teach your child to enforce boundaries, most of them are going to be unrelated to the situation you described above though, and are probably better done when she's slightly older. Some of the stuff like described here that may be suitable for showing a younger child they have a right to boundaries:

  • respecting when they say no in reply to a request for a kiss or hug,
  • respecting their feelings,
  • encourage them to show their feelings and
  • praising them when they show feelings in an acceptable manner.

Again, I assume you know your granddaughter best, and can best determine if/when she's ready for any of the other steps the article describes. There's a lot of great looking online sources that turn up on a quick google search, they describe all sorts of stuff you could do to help her develop healthy boundaries along the way.

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