People in our country have a general tendency to consider babies as cute dolls and not really as human beings with their own feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes and mostly their own comfort levels just like us, grown-ups. They think it is okay to do whatever they feel like with kids, because kids are ‘supposed to’ enjoy any form of pampering that is showered on them. As mother to a 2-year-old girl who understands and protects her personal space and boundaries emphatically, I can’t begin to explain how wrong this mindset of people is.

Vedu is a complete chatterbox, a free spirit and an amazingly entertaining little one at home. But she prefers to observe people and not talk too much outside. She isn’t one to make too many friends very easily; but she enjoys playing in a small group, one or two kids at the most at a time, provided there is no chaos and hullabaloo. I used to be the same as a child. Very talkative and lots of fun with people I was close to, but rather quiet and formal with others. In fact, I see a lot of me in her.

One huge reason though that I have seen behind her inhibition in letting herself go while outside is the constant intrusion into her personal space by elders – much elder kids and grown-ups. Every day someone or the other tries to forcefully take her in her arms or kiss her on the cheek. She expresses her disapproval and irritation on her face and through her gestures, trying to make sure that they don’t touch her; but people don’t seem to care. When she was smaller, I used to worry about how I would handle the situation without upsetting anyone. But after a couple of incidents where complete strangers simply grabbed her from us in public places without giving us even a split-second to react or stop them, I realized that what I should always prioritize is her sense of security.

I do understand that most people do it without bad intentions. But there are two things they should understand. Firstly, kids have their sense of personal space and boundaries just like we do. If they are not comfortable with you invading that space, respect that. I once tried to make a couple of girls in our building understand why Vedu was always running away from them. I simply asked this, “If you don’t like someone trying to hug you or grab you, and she keeps doing that, will you be happy to see her? And if you are uncomfortable with it, will your mother let the other person touch you?” That is more or less a question I can ask grown-ups too. If we are right in having our space, why not babies?
Secondly, and more importantly, I can’t just stand by and watch when someone is trying to touch my child without her consent because by doing that I am sending a message to her that it is okay for anyone to do that and she is supposed to accept that. Tomorrow if someone tries to do the same thing with bad intentions, how will she know she can say “No” and ask them to stay away? I will choose her safety and her right to protect herself over the feelings of others. No matter who it is, friends or acquaintances, relatives or strangers, even if it is sometimes us, her parents, when she says “No”, that will be a “No”. If she wishes to maintain a safe distance that makes her feel secure and comfortable, I will stand by her and ensure that no one touches her without her consent. That is something any kid deserves because when we create human beings, we owe it to them to treat them with the respect any human being deserves and not as toys we can play with.

Since we are talking about respecting personal space, let me also remind you that it is not just about physical space. It has also got to do with knowing why you shouldn’t open your mouth to let out unnecessary comments and unsolicited advice, both to the babies and their mommies. If I had a penny for every time someone commented on how skinny my baby is, I would be a billionaire, because I already achieved the millionaire status with the number of people who have commented on how skinny I am. They couple this comment with a diet plan for my child. A person I met for the first and last time near our building once put the 2 minutes he talked to me to good use by commenting how my daughter is definitely under-weight and why I should feed her an egg every day. My first instinct was to tell him that she is allergic to eggs. Then I stopped myself and thought why I owed him any explanation. So I just flashed him my bitchy smile and walked on without bothering to respond at all. The same smile comes out every time someone tells my daughter “Don’t listen to your mom. Take this biscuit/chocolate/whatever.” People, I am not a mother who starves her child. If I say that she is not supposed to eat something that you are trying to push into her mouth, without even bothering to ask me if it is okay, that is because I have my reasons and I know better than you what works for my child. And since I am under no obligation to explain those reasons to anyone, you will have to take the cue from the bitchy smile and back off my child. This applies to not just body-shaming and food, but just about anything related to her.

Sometimes I have seen this ‘imposing freedom’ going totally over-the-top with some people taking up the role of a guardian to all the kids in the vicinity. There are times when kids tend to do something wrong when they are out. I personally would say a stern “No” without raising my voice or take Vedu inside if she really needs a round of scolding. Regardless of how they choose to do it, it is the parents’ duty to correct their kids. At times when the parents are not there and what the kids are doing can cause harm to themselves or others, we tell them nicely why they shouldn’t be doing it. There is nothing wrong with it. Trust me, most kids listen if we are nice to them. If it was something serious, we talk to the parents so that they can do something about it. But no one has the right to yell at or raise her hand at someone else’s kid. It might be okay in a joint family. Out of that, definitely not. And I see these self-proclaimed guardians do just that, even when the kid’s mother is right there.

While making sure that our kids don’t end up with an inflated ego and saying “No” to them sternly where it is needed are absolutely important, it is all the parents’ responsibility. Even kids have their ego that will no doubt be hurt by the humiliating behaviour displayed by someone who is in no way supposed to do that. Would we like it if some random person at workplace or a not-so-close relative yells at us, that too in front of others? If we don’t, why should kids take that? Since Vedu hardly opens her mouth outside, I have never faced this issue much. But many-a-times when I have seen other kids subject to such humiliation look around with total embarrassment, I have felt really bad for them. Put yourselves in their shoes for a minute. That should help you understand why it is only basic decency to be nice to them, even when you have to correct them.

This is all just an effort to nurture my hope for a more ‘peaceful’ future for babies like Vedu and mommies like me, a hope that even I don’t believe in. Because these are all things that are so ingrained in our people’s minds that it is next to impossible to change that. In fact, I almost lost that hope the day I saw a lady here look at our street’s unofficial pet dog, pregnant at the time, and say “Oh that dog is lying on its tummy. It is not supposed to lie down like that when it is pregnant.” If they don’t leave nature and animals alone, how can there be any escape for us, lesser beings?