A little distance, please, people!
October 1, 2009 5:39 PM   Subscribe

Help me say, nicely, "Please don't touch my child".

I am the mother of a two year old boy. Lately, it seems like in public he's getting a lot of attention. When we get public transport, people can't help but reach out and touch his cheeks, pat his legs or feet, stroke his hair or tickle his ribs, saying things like "Oh, how cute..." etc. People even kiss his head before I get a chance to say anything. The attention is a daily thing if I take him out. This reached a point of complete lunacy yesterday on a crowded bus when no fewer than three people AT ONCE were pawing him from different angles - a nice elderly lady who had helped us onto the bus, a young, sweet handicapped guy with no sense of personal space (really, truly meant no harm - sort of petting his legs and playing peek-a-boo, which my son enjoyed heartily), and a friendly, middle-aged lady - oh, and the elderly man sitting across from saying "what a good boy, how sweet" etc, while reaching out towards him. It really started to get overwhelming for me, but my kid seems to take it in stride, if not enjoy the attention. I watch him carefully to see if he's uncomfortable at all, and want to put a stop to it before it comes to that.

I don't mind that he seems to be liked - I get a kick out of watching people make cute faces at him while we're sitting in a cafe or something.

What can I say? I don't want to lie, and say something like he's sick with a cold, because son doesn't need to learn to lie casually like that. I just want to say something firm, clear, yet still friendly.

Yes, yes, this should be easy for an adult to handle, but I am looking for some well-worded suggestions that I can feel good about, particularly since these people just seem to be good, well-meaning folk on the whole - you know, nice people who give up seats for us, or help us onto trains. I just don't think it's a good idea for my son to learn that it's OK for people to touch him whenever they feel like it. It's really getting kind of wierd and cloying.
posted by lottie to Human Relations (53 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're aware that your son seems to be enjoying the attention, and that it's your boundaries that are being a bit trampled on. While you should certainly protect your own boundaries, if the issue is truly that you want to make sure he isn't uncomfortable, and that he knows that he can protect his own space, why not try something like "Oh, it looks like he's getting a bit overwhelmed from all this attention! Why don't we give him a little breathing room?"
posted by amelioration at 5:45 PM on October 1, 2009

Best answer: "Please don't touch my son...

- we're learning about boundaries / personal space."
- I'm worried about the flu that's going around."

Or, "I'd prefer if you didn't touch my son."

Or, really, "please don't touch my son." It wouldn't be rude to say "please don't touch me" if someone-- however well intentioned-- was playing with your hair or patting you or whatever. Just say it in a pleasant tone, with a smile.

I am a complete baby ogler. Tempting as it is to reach out and interact, I would never, ever do it. So I just settle for peekaboo and silly faces, and a wistful "those are perhaps the most adorable (feet, cheeks, insert-baby-part-here) in the world."
posted by charmcityblues at 5:48 PM on October 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I struggle with the same thing with my kids. I say to people, "He doesn't like that. Please respect his space. He doesn't like it. I know you're just being friendly -- Aren't kids so wonderful?/Do you have any children in your life?/What's that you're buying?/Have you got the time?" I try to redirect the conversation and make it positive.

For people who persist, I've been known to be more bold. "Please, don't pet him. I'm trying to teach him that strangers shouldn't touch him and it's hard when the lines get blurred." I avoid using that unless I must, as it freaks people out.

When I've felt timid, I've been known to say: "Some people have compromised immune systems and that sort of attention isn't okay -- could you keep back a bit?"

One of my kids is older now and I've made it very clear to him that it's never okay for people to do that. To meet his trust, I always tell people not to touch him. I then tell him it's okay for him to say he doesn't want to be touched. I don't want any blurry lines in his head. I don't want my kids to learn young that it's okay to let people touch you when your head/heart/stomach is telling you not to do it. I also tell him that, if he doesn't say anything, that's okay and that it is still not okay for them to do it. I want it to be clear in his mind that it is NOT his responsibility to say no to unwanted touching. When my kids use body language that implies no, I also will point that out to people. "See how he's backing away? He doesn't want you to do that." (It depends how persistent I need to be.)

Some people have actually said, "Oh, but babies/children belong to everyone." I tell them I disagree and that my kids' bodies only belong to them.
posted by acoutu at 5:49 PM on October 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

"You're awfully kind, but it makes me very uncomfortable when people touch my child. Thanks for understanding."
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:49 PM on October 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

Sidhedevil's reply is really polite, but it means you have to wait 14 words till the other person knows what your problem is. That's why I've learned to be so snappy. People can do a lot in 14 seconds, unfortunately. (Kisses, squeezes, under the shirt tummy rubs. It's kinda gross, actually.)
posted by acoutu at 5:52 PM on October 1, 2009

No touchy.
posted by Sassyfras at 5:56 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I like that reply - thank you, and I will use it.

Sure it's about my boundaries in so much as not wanting to instill fear in him, but hoping to normalise that it isn't really OK for people to touch you all over whenever they feel like it. He's a loved little kid, who gets lots of cuddles and kisses from family, so I'm starting to feel concerned that he won't learn the difference between a stranger on a bus (or more private places for that matter) and his Grandpa rubbing his back, especially since he seems to enjoy all the warm attention, and the public folk who are touching him are holding his hands, kissing him and other quite intimate things. Even as harmless as I think the petters generally are, I can't deny feeling a very strong gut discomfort about it, and do want to put a stop to it.

Personally, I'm also not a fan of the germs this exposes him to either. I was with my Mum on the bus when we endured the mass petting yesterday and she was just flumoxed - "What was THAT all about?! WOW, my god." I just want to get him home and give him a bath, it's that full on.
posted by lottie at 5:58 PM on October 1, 2009

"please don't touch my son" is really all you should be expected to say.

be aware that those with poor boundaries are known to react poorly to those with strong boundaries asserting them. this doesn't mean you're rude, but they might react like you are. this is a them problem, not a you problem.
posted by nadawi at 6:01 PM on October 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I was pondering this question in the post office just this afternoon. The best I could come up with was to lie and say, "Oooh, you might want to keep back-- she's just getting over a bad cold" (makes it seem like you're being considerate of them). But if they plunge ahead even after that, I've got nothing.
posted by Bardolph at 6:01 PM on October 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

are you kidding? if people were doing this to YOU, you'd be spazzing out. it's a complete violation of personal space, plus people are disgusting and don't wash their hands, and now they're wiping their shit (possibly literally) all over your kid. you have every right to tell people not to touch him, and you can be as nice or as rude as you want to about it.

i just clicked through to your profile and saw that you are not american. australians are possibly not as angry as we are and not as insane about personal space as americans. also, i live in philadelphia where the public transit system is germ central, and if i had a child, and people were touching it like we were at a cattle market, i would turn into that crazy bitch you see on the train. so, perhaps you should take my comment with a very large grain of salt.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:10 PM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm hearing you, misanthropicsarah; I lived in the States six years, and the buses and trains were infinitely more scary and alarming than they are in Sydney, so I guess that's a factor to keep in mind - were I there I would probably get up and walk away if someone touched him, if not give someone an earful. I'm talking about good folk: very sweet, though over-bearing and candy-bearing middle aged Chinese women, little old ladies of all kinds, kindly old men, young, usually Asian women in their twenties, sometimes young Asian men (generally Pakistani, Indian or south eat asian, which I think is nice in a way, I wish young Anglo men took an interest in children, rather than pushing past me to get a seat on the bus).

These people are nice. I want to be firm without being a jerk.
posted by lottie at 6:22 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: Please keep in mind that these folk are generally the same people who give me a seat when I'm pregnant, for example. They are the good ones. They're also grabby.
posted by lottie at 6:24 PM on October 1, 2009

Best answer: I really like charmcityblues' suggestion of "please don't touch him; we're learning about boundaries."

If you offer a physical reason like "that flu that's going around," it gives people the chance to sidestep it... and the people who don't refrain from pawing your child will also not hesitate to counter your polite demurral with excuses like, "Oh, I'm as healthy as a horse! Now let's have a cuddle!"

But a parent insisting (civilly, but still insisting) that "We're learning about boundaries" is harder to shrug off. And if they try to shrug it off, if they offer, "Oh, but surely a little [pinch/ hug/ kiss/ belly rub] doesn't matter" or whatever, you can simply reply sternly that it certainly does because you don't want to muddy the issue for the little darling. "Learning about boundaries" is suitably vague for this purpose: you get to decide where the boundaries are, and you can do it on a case-by-case basis, depending on the level of acquaintance.

Bonus points for charmcityblues' phrase: it leaves open the question of who exactly is learning about boundaries. The stranger is welcome to interpret that your child needs to learn about boundaries, and should take no offense. In my view and perhaps yours, it's the grabby stranger manhandling your child who needs the lesson.
posted by Elsa at 6:31 PM on October 1, 2009 [12 favorites]

I'd like to mention, too: I'm sympathetic to these people and their desire to grab onto your child, because little kids are absolutely adorable and I just want to snuggggggggleugggleuggle them up with a spoon, yes-I-do! But wanting to do it and doing it are two different things.

They are allowed to want to do it. They are not allowed to do it, if it bothers you or your child.
posted by Elsa at 6:34 PM on October 1, 2009

If you choose to say something like, "Don't touch my son" please consider not saying it loudly or in a shocked tone. I once smiled at a young child who then started to play peek-a-boo of sorts with me (hiding his head, then popping out with a grin again). The mother whipped around, snarled, then put a protective arm around her child to force him closer to her and so he could not see me. Made me feel like a child molester.

It was effective -- I don't make eye contact with children anymore, unless they are the children of someone I know. But it made me feel pretty crappy and seriously misunderstood.
posted by Houstonian at 6:37 PM on October 1, 2009 [7 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions in this thread and, honestly, "Please don't touch my child" is a fine way to go about this as well.

Whatever statement you wind up using, would it be possible to add some physical boundaries as well? When you get on the public transport, is the lad in a stroller or walking with you? And how are the seats in this transport (bus? train?) arranged? Most buses and trains I've ridden have twin rows of double seats with an aisle down the middle, and maybe some inward-facing bench seats up front. What if you sat in one of those, with your boy by the window and you on the aisle? Now, the grabby folk would have to either reach over you or wrench clear around in the seat ahead to touch your son.

If the seats aren't set up as I have assumed they are, is there some other way you can make use of how they are configured to buffer your boy? Doing so might prevent this issue from escalating to the stage where you have to say something.
posted by EatTheWeek at 7:00 PM on October 1, 2009

I struggle with the same thing with my kids. I say to people, "He doesn't like that. Please respect his space. He doesn't like it....."

If, like the OP's kid, he DOES actually like it (regardless of mom's feelings), please don't say this. I think it gives kids a really weird message when they're fine with something and the parent insists they hate it (playing or getting head pats or making faces, not getting molested, don't jump on me).

Not that a kid should NOT be taught to fend for him/herself, just don't say "She is uncomfortable" when it's YOU who's uncomfortable.
posted by tristeza at 7:02 PM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you choose to say something like, "Don't touch my son" please consider not saying it loudly or in a shocked tone.

This is pretty good advice, too, not only to spare the feelings of the person you're addressing, but also because it's likely to get a more positive response.

If you openly scold an apparently harmless stranger (or even a not-harmless stranger who thinks s/he's harmless), they start defending their right to do [whatever]. If you get them to collaborate with you in an act --- in this case, the act of "teaching about boundaries" --- it's much easier to inspire cooperation.

I'm not suggesting that you would be in the wrong to snap at a stranger or vague acquaintance who is handling your child, just that it may be more productive to use a pleasant tone, at least at first.
posted by Elsa at 7:08 PM on October 1, 2009

Best answer: Seeing as it's supposed to be fluageddon this year and all, I've been relying on "Oh please don't--I'm super paranoid about flu germs". Especially good when you wipe them down after contact (which everyone else will see). Easier with a younger child who doesn't touch anything themselves I guess, but still good.
posted by Go Banana at 7:14 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: Go Banana's suggestion is a good one because I like that it doesn't include lying about him being sick. I don't want him to use being sick as an excuse not to do things because he learnt that from me in these situations, but flu germs... that's another story.
posted by lottie at 7:22 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: To Answer EatTheWeak's question, he is usually seated in my lap, facing out and with my arms around his waist. This usually makes me feel like the hands and fingers are coming at me too, so I definitely feel the onslaught. It's a good idea that I will consider in future, but usually we're in pretty cramped conditions.

People will approach and touch while he is in my arms too, say in the supermarket or waiting on a line.
posted by lottie at 7:25 PM on October 1, 2009

If, like the OP's kid, he DOES actually like it (regardless of mom's feelings), please don't say this. I think it gives kids a really weird message when they're fine with something and the parent insists they hate it (playing or getting head pats or making faces, not getting molested, don't jump on me).

Seconding this. I think it's important not to teach your child to be afraid of the touch of strangers (because, as adults, there's often physical contact necessary on a day-to-day basis--even if it's as simple as shaking someone's hand), but to trust their instincts about what types of touches are wrong and right. Remember that the vast majority of child molesters are people that the child knows--teaching "it's okay if it's family" sends a much more dangerous message than does, say, lying about being ill.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:30 PM on October 1, 2009

Having looked this over, I love, "Please don't touch him. We're learning about boundaries." This is just great and doesn't place any blame or emotion. I'm going to use that, as I had struggled for so long with finding the right words. I live in Canada and I want to be polite, as many of the people have come from diverse backgrounds.

When I said "He doesn't like it", it was because he doesn't like it. He gets very upset. I find people tend to keep pursuing him, even when he's shaking his head, pushing them away, moving away, hiding behind me. Some people are REALLY focused in trying to touch kids -- even well meaning people. I've even had people suddenly pick up my kids and walk away with them, say, while I'm getting something out of the back of a stroller or picking a fork up from the floor. Some kids attract more attention, for whatever reason, and I think some people can be very bold in pursuing them -- not to molest them, but to pick up the "babies belong to the world" babies.
posted by acoutu at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2009

Sure it's about my boundaries in so much as not wanting to instill fear in him, but hoping to normalise that it isn't really OK for people to touch you all over whenever they feel like it. He's a loved little kid, who gets lots of cuddles and kisses from family, so I'm starting to feel concerned that he won't learn the difference between a stranger on a bus (or more private places for that matter) and his Grandpa rubbing his back

I don't want to rain on your stranger-danger parade, but you don't really have to worry about kids silently allowing strangers to molest them. You have to worry about family members doing so. So lots of cuddling with family is just as dangerous, if not more so, than cuddling from strangers, if either is actually dangerous at all.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:57 PM on October 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have this problem as a nanny because people think I'm less protective than a mother, or less entitled to get territorial. I tend to demur a little and say, "I'm sorry, I hate to be weird about this, but I'm not comfortable about her having too much physical contact with people she doesn't know." Or I switch the baby to my other hip and say something to her that the other adult can hear, like, "Ooookay, you've had enough socializing." Or I smile that obvious, tight smile of someone who's obviously unhappy with the situation and steer the stroller away silently, which seems to get the point across to all but the most meddlesome old women.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:57 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks TypographicalError - I was aware of this, and remain vigilant, but it isn't an issue in my immediate family. Simply put, it's 100% OK with me and my husband for my loving Dad (for example) to cuddle my son, but not everyone in arms reach on a bus, and I really get to decide this point for myself, knowing my own circumstances, as a completely separate issue. So no... thanks but no... actually him cuddling with us is NOT every bit as dangerous as it is with strangers.

By the way, we also don't ever insist that the he kiss relatives in general (or anyone for that matter) and we want him to know it's OK to say no. The most uninvited grabbing is this very uninhibited public business of late.
posted by lottie at 9:07 PM on October 1, 2009

I don't think it's a "stranger danger parade" not to be happy when strangers on a bus or train put their hands on your kid or infant. Bacteria and viruses are a reality on public transit. That's enough reason to be concerned, without the whole "ooh that person might be a molester" thing entering into it. H1N1 is a reality -- although I don't know how much of one it is in Australia. If it's not H1N1 that's a risk, MRSA is certainly a risk. I don't want to sound all germaphobic, but if you are on public transit, these are real issues -- unfortunately.

There are polite ways of firmly insisting on people not touching your child. I don't know, though, about the whole "he's learning about boundaries" idea. Not everybody is going to know the jargon of "boundaries" or accept that jargon as non-confrontational. Just say what kathrineg said -- it makes you uncomfortable. That's that, end of discussion. Though if you are dealing with persons from cultures with different views on touching, that actually might not be the end of the discussion.
posted by blucevalo at 10:28 PM on October 1, 2009

Whoops, I didn't see the context of the comment that TypographicalError was responding to. Please disregard. My apologies.
posted by blucevalo at 10:30 PM on October 1, 2009

My mom had a great way of dealing with this type of unwanted attention. As soon as a touchy-feely stranger would start moving towards any of my siblings or I, she would make this loud, annoyed "aaaaAAAHHH ah ah!" sound. It rose in pitch -- and was usually accompanied by a stern look or a bit of tsk, tsk, tsking.

The loud "aaaaAAAHHH ah ah!" served two purposes: the abrupt sound usually startled the person enough that they'd stop in their tracks and back away, embarrassed, as if they were the ill-mannered child. And, it made them re-evaluate what they were trying to do.

No matter how snippy it makes you look, you have to teach these people that it's not okay to paw at your child. After you've intercepted the gropers, if you feel like it, explain that "We have a hands off policy in your family when it comes to strangers. No offense." If they don't like it, too bad. They're being rude to try to touch him in the first place.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 12:01 AM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

It would help if you would explain why people must never touch your child.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:33 AM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

While I'm sympathetic to your fears about people touching your child, listen to what you're saying. You say he genuinely seems to like the attention. You say it gets a little overwhelming for you. It sounds like this is not necessarily about your child's happiness and safety.

As a parent of a small child myself, I've found myself taking just the opposite position. I actively encourage my child to interact with other adults. I'm not saying that the occasional fear doesn't enter my head, but I dismiss such fears in the light of the huge amount of evidence that my child is almost certainly in no danger whatsoever in these situations.

Paedophiles don't generally sit on buses looking for an opportunity to tickle my child under the chin or pat his hand. And I'm not at all convinced that touching or being touched briefly by other people, or touching the bus seats or windows is going to make him sick. In fact I'm pretty sure the vast majority of his illnesses have been picked up from other children at the toddler groups and nursery he attends. Rationally I know I should be much, much more concerned about driving carefully and keeping him a safe distance from the kerb when we're out walking.

You can't keep your child in a sterile bubble, and to do so would be unhealthy for you both. While it's fine not to want strangers to kiss your child full on the lips or pick him up without asking permission, try to find a balance that is going to be emotionally healthy for your child, and try to put your own fears into perspective. And please try to show a little understanding towards innocent, (cleanish) strangers who just want to spend a couple of seconds interacting your your cute kid. I'm sure you'll be tactful in the way you enforce boundaries. Nobody deserves to be made to feel like a potential child molester.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:42 AM on October 2, 2009 [9 favorites]

If someone approaches and your son is in your lap, keep one arm around his waist and raise the other, palm out, saying "Please, don't touch my child." Combining words and a gesture might get the message across better.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:11 AM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I understand Lottie's concerns, I don't like being touched by strangers (never did as a baby either) and when my baby turned into teh kyootest who needs her cheeks pinched by strangers on the bus, I carefully monitored her reaction, so to not bring my baggage to the table.

She was always quite good at squirming away of she did not want the attention, and I could say "please don't, she's shy today", but my kid can also decide for herself when people are OK and when they are not. She readily climbs into laps of everyone that works at her preschool, but rarely gives kisses to anyone (including family), and she has played peek-a-boo with an messy Einstein lookalike on the bus whom I might think was 'iffy'. She backs off from anyone who has drunk, or 'feels wrong' to her in some other way I might not be able to pinpoint. It took me a while to trust her instincts, but they're dead on and in many cases better than mine. I find it's important to teach my kid to trust her gut - if she doesn't mind, I try my best not to either.
posted by dabitch at 5:17 AM on October 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think 'We're learning about boundaries' is a great phrase to use, in general.

You mention, though, that many of the people approaching your son are of non-Anglo background. This could be significant - in many Asian cultures, kids really are everybody's responsibility - if a child is acting up in public, strangers are allowed to scold them; conversely, if they're being little angels, head patting and belly tickling from strangers is completely acceptable. Parents in the Asian cultures I'm familiar with also give their young children a bit more freedom in public - they're allowed to run around in restaurants, for example, because the parents know that another adult will scold them and send them back to Mum and Dad if they start causing trouble. My point is, if there's a cultural gap between you and the grabber, the notion that your child has strict personal boundaries might not be entirely clear.

One thing that is completely cross-cultural though, is that no parent wants their kid to end up overstimulated, tired and cranky at the end of a long day. So if you're talking a sweet old lady whom you really don't want to offend, you could tell her, "Please don't touch my son. I know he's beautiful, but he's been getting this kind of attention all day long and it really wears him out." This tells the grabber that yes, your son is cute and her impulse to grab him is understandable, and no, he's not sick or shy or unhappy right now, but for the love of god, if he continues to get tickled and patted and poked and prodded everywhere he goes, there will be tantrums. I think anyone who likes kids ought to understand this sentiment.
posted by embrangled at 5:26 AM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Huh, this thread totally explains why now and then parents glare at me for smiling at their child. I am not a parent, but I will smile at a baby on the bus or train if the baby smiles at me. Sometimes parents don't like even this. I do not touch a child, ever. But if they are next to me and put a hand on my knee for a moment or something, I won't push them away or scold someone else's child.

If you said to me "Don't touch/look at my child, we're learning boundaries" I do not really know what that means. Having lived in Sydney, I can bet the same for the Chinese ladies etc on the train! I can picture where you must be sitting, the downstairs area where all the seats face eachother. No escaping close contact there with exactly the type of people who like to touch and talk to babies! Very much a cultural thing as embrangled says, since a lot of the people I used to see doing this on the train were Lebanese or Chinese. Words may not work, maybe take his hands, have him engage in some kind of sitting up straight/behaving well on the train thing.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:49 AM on October 2, 2009

These people are nice. I want to be firm without being a jerk.

Well, you can't. You have an idea about how you want people to treat you and your kid, and that idea is unreasonably complex. You have a long list of interactions that are OK and a long list of interactions that aren't. You can't do this. There's no way to explain all this to people, so you have to choose. It's 'touch' or 'don't touch', I'm afraid. You need to learn to say 'Please don't touch my child' and not care how it sounds.

You want Asian people - who could be immigrants or just tourists - not to act like Asians. They don't know all the ways Western approaches to children differ from Eastern ones, and you're unreasonable to expect them to. Especially if they're Taiwanese teenagers in Sydney for five days' holiday. And especially when you're unhappy with Anglos as well. You're pretty much dissatisfied with the way one half of the world interacts with kids.

You can't expect old and middle-aged people to think of themselves as dangers to your child. These people have often raised kids of their own to healthy adulthood. Having safely shepherded their own kids through life without them catching Ebola on the Bondi tram or being abducted by white slavers on the platform at Circular Quay, they think they know what's appropriate and inappropriate when it comes to interacting with kids on public transport. You disagree, but there's no 'nice' way for a novice to tell a veteran 'you don't know how to act towards children'.

You also need to stop expecting and accepting help from strangers. Don't let old ladies help you onto the bus if you don't want them taking scandalous liberties with your kid. It's also unreasonable to expect young men to give up their seats for you. You don't like it when old men act like old men, but you want young men to act like its 1952? Make up your mind!

No-one can read your thoughts and immediately grok all the varied and sometimes contradictory rules you have about touching your kid. You can be left alone or you can have a love-fest. You can get what you want, but only by getting over your desire to always come across to strangers as a super-nice, tolerant, polite lady. Make a choice.
posted by eatyourcellphone at 6:22 AM on October 2, 2009 [7 favorites]

Carol Anne nailed it. As they reach out towards your son, reach out towards them and firmly stop their hands. Smile and say, "I know you're just being friendly, but I don't like strangers to touch him. Please feel free to talk and wave to him, but don't touch him, please."

The fact that he's in your lap gives you the perfect opportunity to stop them.

I think the "boundaries" stuff is just too much information. An elderly person will probably have no idea what you are talking about. Just stop their hands, and say you don't like it.

I think if you don't actually reach out and stop them, you'll have the worst of both worlds--they will have already touched him, and then you'll have to tell them that you didn't like it after they already did it.
posted by tk at 6:22 AM on October 2, 2009

I am with le morte de bea arthur on this. Being a parent is hard. Parents sometimes have to work on accepting things they don't like, for the sake of their kids. They have to stretch themselves to do things they would not normally attempt, because it is best for their children. This sounds like one of those cases. Putting up a barrier between your son and other people is not in his interests, even if you feel it is in yours. The number of people who make these moves towards your son gives you a guide about how normal it is, and how unusual for a mother to freeze them out.

So lighten up for his sake, and lightly say "Hey, one at a time, please!" when you really really get stressed out.
posted by Idcoytco at 6:37 AM on October 2, 2009

How about a simple, "No touching, thanks" with a nice smile acknowledging that you know that they meant well.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:09 AM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, just be civil and tell people not to do that. We're already well down the path of fearing strangers, not having good community bonds, and not having any kind contact with each other as humans so we might as well stamp it all out before we hit the uncanny valley where it feels "weird."
posted by wackybrit at 8:48 AM on October 2, 2009

My daughter is like a movie star at the grocery store so I understand your situation. My wife and I let people get close. A slight wiggle of the foot, leg, or hand is ok. But if it gets a little too friendly, I put out a gentle hand out as if to imply 'pump your brakes' and simply say 'Swine Flu', 'Flu Season' or 'Wild Wild West Wolverine Virus'. I think a few germs are good for her, but if someone successfully breaks our lines of defense into a full blown 'grip up', the sanitizer comes out pronto. If my daughter doesn't want to be touched, she usually lets people know with a screw-face.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:54 AM on October 2, 2009

No disrespect to anyone, but I cannot believe that parents need to learn to accept strangers touching their child "for the sake of their kids." IANAParent, but if something awful ever happened after I watched a stranger touch the kiddo in front of me I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

Pull the kiddo back and say "no." It doesn't matter where you live, who (or how nice) these people are, where it happens, whatever. You don't need to feel guilty and you don't owe anyone an explanation. You're the mum, and it sounds like you're a darned good one.
posted by mintcake! at 10:18 AM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

(...and i don't see how smiling and saying "no, please" could come off as mean.)
posted by mintcake! at 10:23 AM on October 2, 2009

I am a perpetual baby-flirter. I see babies on the bus all the time and I love talking to them, smiling at them, and playing peekaboo with them. I would be uncomfortable with anyone just reaching out and touching my kid without asking "do you mind" first. I like tk's approach of fending off a touch before it happens and telling the stranger to feel free to stick her tongue out at my baby, but please don't pet her. It's good because it allows the baby to be social and cute and flirty and to become comfortable with her environment without requiring that she learn that hey, it isn't a bad thing for someone to reach out and touch her on the bus. "Learning boundaries" is a great way to think about it, but when putting it into words I would take a simpler approach.
posted by Night_owl at 10:34 AM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's amazing to me that so many people are defending the rights of strangers to grab someone's toddler, and demanding that lottie provide more explanation of why she don't want this to continue. There are plenty of reasons to want strangers (and even acquaintances) to keep their mitts off of a child, none of which have anything to do with the US's cultural panic about "stranger danger." It's not necessarily just one, but a whole web of reasons converging:

- overstimulation. A much-petted child can easily get overstimulated and become cranky later. Please note that lottie has said it's not one person touching her child, but several on each busride. That can easily get overstimulating. As someone who has taken adorable nieces and nephews on mass transit, I concur: once one person handles the kid, several other people feel they have license to do so as well.

- illness. Even we non-germaphobes know that hands are a vector for germs, and that allowing a whole lotta strangers to put a whole lotta of hands (all of which have been touching the rails and doors and chairbacks of the bus) upon one child is not a great way to prevent illness.

- teaching the child about privacy, personal space, and boundaries. This is particularly hard to navigate in a public space, and two is a good age for a child to start learning, for example, that some people are friends and some people are just friendly. For example, if I end up on lottie's bus, I will almost certainly smile and make a friendly face at her son. That doesn't mean I'm a friend; it just means I'm friendly.

Note that not one of these paints another anonymous bus passenger as a villian, as a pedophile, as a disease carrier. It's a general protocol for keeping the child calm and healthy, while simultaneously teaching him a crucial lesson about social space. It's entirely age-appropriate.

And for those who remark that they don't know what "learning about boundaries" means, or that they don't understand why she wants strangers to stop touching her son: happily, you don't need to know what it means, because the crucial part ("please don't do that") is in clear, simple language.

"Please don't touch my son; we're learning about boundaries" means "Please don't touch my son, and here's a reason that doesn't cast blame on you." The request is the important part, and I am astonished how many people think it's unreasonable to honor that simple request.

And lottie, I have one more suggestion to make, since you specifically asked for ways to ask nicely. After you make your civil request that a stranger refrain from touching (or stop touching) your son, you might soften the request even further by saying "Wave hello to the nice lady!," or suggesting a handshake, or whatever seems normal to you. Encouraging your child to greet the stranger should make it clear that you're not suspicious of them or hostile, but still allows you to set the boundaries while still teaching your son about normal social contact.

I like tk's approach of fending off a touch before it happens and telling the stranger to feel free to stick her tongue out at my baby, but please don't pet her.

Or, in shorter terms, that sounds perfect.
posted by Elsa at 11:51 AM on October 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

"Please don't touch my son; we're learning about boundaries" is going to come across as pretty weird to a lot of people. Boundaries are something we normally learn for ourselves; we don't have to be taught. Your boundaries are not necessarily going to be the same as those of your child, so any attempt at 'teaching' your child to respond exactly as you do is just going to cause unnecessary confusion. You're teaching your child that these people are bad in some way, despite appearances to the contrary.

My three-year-old has boundaries. They vary depending on time and place and mood. Sometimes he wants a lot of physical contact, sometimes he wants you to stay well away. And he's pretty good at letting you know. We didn't have to teach him. If someone tries to get close to my child and he looks nervous or fearful, I'll make sure they respect his space. But to be fair, it's never been a problem. What I'm not going to do is just assume that my son will automatically respond to other people in the same way I (with thirty-odd years of learned responses and neuroses) do.

By all means teach your child that other people have boundaries, although with a two-year-old it's more a case of telling them that it's not OK to bite grandpa's leg than anything very abstract. But please give him room to explore the world around him without imposing your own fears and prejudices.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:33 PM on October 2, 2009

There's a huge difference between smiling or waving at a child and actually touching them. I too am a baby- and toddler-flirter, but would no more touch a stranger's child than endure a stranger pawing my face. No matter how adorable I am.

I think that the older ladies are not going to understand the "boundaries" line, though it may work beautifully for some of the others.

After you make your civil request that a stranger refrain from touching (or stop touching) your son, you might soften the request even further by saying "Wave hello to the nice lady!

To take this a step farther, you can just address your son and wink at the baby-petter. "Oh, son, you're going to get spoiled, let's take a break."
posted by desuetude at 3:09 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's no way to say "please don't touch my son" without sounding like a paranoid, hypersensitive freak.

However, if you feel strongly about people not touching your son, you may need to get used to sounding like a paranoid, hypersensitive freak.
posted by jayder at 10:01 PM on October 2, 2009 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Dear wackybrit: I live in a big city and interact in a friendly, even touching way with several hundred people every single day. Please do not draw a long bow. I think that practically anyone would have been freaked out by the number of hands stretched across me and on my child that day - I'm allowed to have my limits of comfort like anyone else.

Also, please, a note those getting hysterical about my feelings about pedophiles - I really have no concern about that in this case, it's simply a personal space, cleanliness and comfort issue. Thanks.
posted by lottie at 2:17 AM on October 3, 2009

Response by poster: Another quick thought; Most parents will know that kids will often smile and laugh, enjoy a situation for a good while, then freak out completely and inconsolably when they become overwhelmed. To be avoided. That's my job as his Mum.
posted by lottie at 2:21 AM on October 3, 2009

Response by poster: Final interjection - My son is going through a phase where he is playfully kicking people, family mainly. I'm trying to teach him that personal space is not to be invaded, and you should touch others only when you know they are OK with it. Now mix that up with uninhibited pawing from every angle in public, and see how easy it is to keep the message straight.
posted by lottie at 2:25 AM on October 3, 2009

This question seemed so weird to me that I had to check back and see if I was alone in that feeling (glad to see I wasn't). I have kids myself, including one very cute toddler, and I can't remember this ever being a problem. I suppose if some clearly-drunken vagrant wanted to grab my kids' cheeks, that would bother me, but 99% of the time it's a sober older person & they're just happy to see kids. I think that sort of attention is fine, and my children seem to enjoy it too, so... yeah.

I can't imagine any way you could say this that would not convey the idea that the person reaching out is in some way perverted or suspect - which feels incredibly rude to me. I'm not trying to be mean, and your feelings are obviously valid, I just can't imagine how I would handle being upset with people touching my children except to stop going wherever this was happening. I just can't see my lips being able to speak the words, "please don't touch my child".

Maybe this is a Canadian thing? Like apologizing when someone steps on my foot?
posted by stinkycheese at 1:25 PM on October 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

stinkycheese, I think this is a general movement (not just Australia; probably with some people in Canada, too). I've been surprised by it, as I mentioned, but I've learned to accept it and adjust my behavior accordingly (no interaction with children, ever, unless I know the parents). It seems we've moved fairly quickly from "it takes a village to raise a child" to "if someone successfully breaks our lines of defense into a full blown 'grip up', the sanitizer comes out pronto."

But also, I think the responses to this question don't necessarily reflect the greatest portion of any particular group. The people who responded are those with whom the question resonated. She asked how to get people to not touch her children; for the most part, people who have felt that urge responded. If she'd asked whether it is good or bad for a child to have interactions like this with the greater society she meets in public areas, the responses might have been very different.
posted by Houstonian at 2:09 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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