Saturday, July 19, 2014

No Means Force

We were grabbing a bite of lunch at a small cafe, in a mall, right across from a booth that sold jewelry and where ears could be pierced for a fee. A mother approaches with a little girl of six or seven years old. The little girl is clearly stating that she doesn't want her ears pierced, that's she's afraid of how much it will hurt, that she doesn't like earrings much in the first place. Her protests, her clear 'no' is simply not heard. The mother and two other women, who work the booth, begin chatting and trying to engage the little girl in picking out a pair of earrings. She has to wear a particular kind when the piercing is first done but she could pick out a fun pair for later.

"I don't want my ears pierced."

"I don't want any earrings."

The three adults glance at each other conspiratorially and now the pressure really begins. She will look so nice, all the other girls she knows wear earrings, the pain isn't bad.

She, the child, sees what's coming and starts crying. As the adults up the volume so does she, she's crying and emitting a low wail at the same time. "I DON'T WANT MY EARS PIERCED."

Her mother leans down and speaks to her, quietly but strongly, the only words we could hear were '... embarrassing me.'

We heard, then, two small screams, when the ears were pierced.

Little children learn early and often that 'no doesn't mean no.'

Little children learn early that no one will stand with them, even the two old men looking horrified at the events from the cafeteria.

Little girls learn early and often that their will is not their own.

No means no, yeah, right.

Most often, for kids and others without power, ''no means force."


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

This is just chilling and horrifying!

If you and Joe had tried to intervene I am sure she would have just told you to mind your own business and gone ahead anyway. Neither the mother nor the shop attendants probably see what they did as child abuse.


Kris S. said...

Point well taken, Dave.

Anonymous said...

Oh fudge,

Dave, in Germany we have a raging discussion if it is legal to let a baby boy circumsiced for religious reasons. We also have the same discussion for earrings.

Still no conclusion whether this is child abuse or not.

But Dave, why didnt you interveen? This is truly a sign of mistreating a child. Its a medical not necessary procedure.

Maybe, because I never had my ears pierced because it could have a possibility of infection which my body wouldnt be able to cope and because I know how sensitiv my ears are I would have had an outburst of rage toward the mother. Its an unnecessary cause for trauma in a little girl.


Anonymous said...

Oh and Dave,

I am well aware that there are situations in which parents have to "force" their children to undergo pain but only to help them get better and not for vain reasons...


Anonymous said...

Maybe you could have pointed out to the mother in a very calm way, that she might get her daughter prone to unnecessary trauma and infection. Tell her to compromise until the daughter gets a little older. Maybe buy her some clip earrings to try out the feeling.

Telling her that someone who should be loved like a daughter if frightend is certainly NOT emberassing.
Try to call social services if necessary.

I knowits hard to get in the spotlight. But it is easier if you fight for someone who is weaker now than to fight with yourself later.


Anonymous said...

How awful. I feel so badly for that little girl. samm

Glee said...

Child abuse.

Kristine said...

That just kills my inner feminist. The will of others with more power, and a culturally determined standard of beauty, winning over a girl's right to say what happens to her own body. Unacceptable. I'm sure the parents thought nothing of it; ear piercing is a quick and relatively harmless bit of pain. But the message it sent to that child! It's so important to me that the kids in my life know their voices matter. That they have the right (and responsibility) to speak up for themselves, and should expect to be heard.

Jayne Wales said...

It's so difficult when you know you were powerless to do something and the guilt is terrible. I sat recently somewhere and because I just did not know what to do, I too sat in silence. My husband was furious that I did that when I came home. I'll never do it again because next time in the same situation I'll be prepared.
I've intervened with kids, I've stopped people hitting them really badly or threatening them what they are going to get . I've heard kids plead and a grown man run and plead and intervened running after the guys chasing him. My husband then tells me I'll get stabbed one day. So in the court where I was intimidated I was wrong, in the real life situations when my anger makes me act recklessly, I'm wrong. And I know that in all the latter occasions those children just get hurt later, it won't stop. You'll be beating yourselves up now. I know that feeling. It's sickening. Sometimes I think we just freeze because we really do not know what to do. But the guilt after is a horrible trip. It keeps going round and round, the let down.
It is possible to go back and write or expose the salon beautician. It may be possible to file a complaint about what you saw and this could be taken up with the family? At least if a complaints filed against the salon then no other child would have to go through it.
I know a little girl in a school and country where ear piercing happens very early. She did not have hers done. She's the only girl in the school without her ears pierced and she's proud of that. She likes being that one, it's now a statement for her. That kid might have not wanted to be like all the rest so that salon needs to know that they assaulted her.
Take care both if you. It's happened to me too.

Dave Hingsburger said...

This obviously bothered me. I wrote it hoping that some good would come out of a bad situation, that some reader may see this and think twice about how they use their power. I can give you excuses, like this only took about 5 minutes and it would have taken me more than that to get out of the restaurant. That I'm in a country, not my own, in a town I don't know and I'm always more cautious in these situations. That a lot of people were seeing this, most smiling and some looked nostalgic. But the real reason is that I simply didn't know what to do or how to do it. So by the time Joe and I talked through what to do, it was over. But this too is not acceptable. I KNOW what to do, but I didn't do it. I felt, wrongly, the pressure of the approval of everyone else who was there, in the diner watching. I wish that wasn't the case and I will regret this for a long time.

Anonymous said...


I think we handle the situations the best for which we are equipped. I think I could have handled that particular situation, because it is and will be an ongoing discussion in our country and betwen my friends and family.

So is organ donation.

And still everybody is handling this different too.


Anonymous said...

This is a small part of a bigger problem. First, girls are supposed to be decorative . . . no protesting, just be decorative. Second, girls (and sometimes boys) are not allowed to say "no." We teach them young that their protests are going to be ignored anyway . . . so why bother. Third, I wonder what is going to happen when this girl needs a medical procedure and/or intervention that she really can't refuse? My guess is that she will become more violent in her protestations . . . Finally, that the "audience" felt that this was a rite of passage and there was a sense of "nostalgia." REALLY?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. It happens in the disability realm too, of course. Unwanted/forced treatments and such. It's awful either way, speaking as someone forcibly medicated as a preteen.

Ron Arnold said...

And then we grow up . . . and are subjected to government, who - in the end - has its main tool to fall back on: legislated authorization of force.

The older I get - the more I view it as immoral.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Dave. Beautifully to the point.

Sometimes presence of mind is in inverse proportion to how horrified one is. It's a sour feeling which follows.

Becca said...

Oh, this gives me chills... I would love for my daughter to get her ears pierced. I've asked her for years now (she's 8) if she wanted to do it, and showed her my own, but every single time I've asked her, she's emphatically said *no.* And I've respected that. I just hope that one day she'll change her mind, but I'm not going to force her. Same with getting her hair cut. She has to *agree.* She willingly donated a foot of hair a few years ago, and it's time to do it again, but it'll have to be when *she's* ready. There are certain things that parents *do* have to make sure their children do, for their own safety or health. But this really crosses the line and makes me sad.

Mac said...

This kind of thing really freaks me out, to be honest. (Especially with piercing ears; I for some reason am majorly creeped out by the idea of having any holes punched through me anywhere, no matter how small; I have tattoos and love them, but the idea of piercing myself makes my skin crawl.) I think when you're a kid you don't even overtly notice just how often you're shut down because that's just the way your life is, but as an adult looking back there are times you can recognize you've been treated appaulingly. And I think when we teach kids that their bodies aren't their own, we're not only setting them up in later life to not understand or utilize their own agency, but also when they're still children we're setting them up to quietly put up with things like sexual abuse. When we teach them that their bodies don't belong to them, and that they have to do what adults tell them to even when it's something they don't physically want, even stuff like forcing kids to hug/kiss relatives when they don't want to, that is such a dangerous precedent to set.

And while I understand the feelings of people saying "why didn't you do something"... I doubt very much that there's anything about this that's seen as wrong or criminal wherever you were. What were you supposed to do, exactly? You could have spoken to the parent, but she's in the middle of forcing her child into body modification, I really doubt she's going to listen to a stranger in the mall, and if you'd gotten any more insistent than that, I'm sure the shop attendants would have called security to escort you out. While I don't think it's bad to speak up for a child who's being ignored, I also think realistically that your intervention wouldn't have changed what happened to that kid.

Our norms for what's okay and not and what's just "beauty" and what's criminal are really bizarre. I'm willing to bet if somebody brought their kid to a piercer wanting any other kind of body mod, like stretched ears or subdermal implants, nobody would find it strange for the piercer to call child services instead. But because we've decided simple lobe piercings are normal, we're totally okay with doing it to little kids. UGH.

Anonymous said...

Look, moms: if you choose to conform to standards of "beauty" and "femininity" that exist for the sole purpose of giving straight men something pretty to stare at, that's your business. Hell, you can even keep pretending you do it "for you" if it helps you sleep at night. (protip: if you're afraid of being seen in public without makeup, you're not doing it "for you.")

But don't you DARE force those standards on your daughters, especially the parts that call for THEIR EARLOBES TO BE PUNCTURED WITH SHARP WIRES, WITHOUT ANESTHETIC.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but children are not dolls for you to play Pretty Princess Dressup with. They are small humans whose physical, mental, and emotional health YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR. Forcing your crappy "beauty" standards on a child can be detrimental to all three.

Mothers like this one are the reason why there are eight-year-olds with eating disorders.

Also, there is a special level of Hell for parents who take BABIES to have their ears pierced, and for the piercers who don't throw them out of the shop for requesting it.

Anonymous said...

"I would love for my daughter to get her ears pierced. I've asked her for years now (she's 8) if she wanted to do it, and showed her my own, but every single time I've asked her, she's emphatically said *no.* And I've respected that."

Becca, if you REALLY respected that, you would have stopped asking after she emphatically said "no" the first time.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the message you're sending when you continue to badger her after she has repeatedly said "no." Please.

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed of you.

I really can't stand people that sit by and watch stuff like that happen and then go complain about it on a blog, then sit back and go, "yep. I was a big help. That little girl would be so proud of me right now."

Because that's exactly what you did. You didn't do a damn thing. You didn't even TRY. And that's just as bad as doing it to the poor girl yourself.

Next time, if you really REALLY feel bad and passionate about what's happening, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Anonymous, perhaps you think writing 'I'm ashamed of you' is doing something. It isn't I didn't let myself off the hook when writing this. I recognize my inaction. I wrote this because i knew that what happened was wrong and what I did was wrong. You may know exactly what to do in this situation, I did not. My contribution to that little girl, now, means nothing. My writing about it might mean something. Breaking silence was all I could do afterwards. Maybe someone will think differently or see a situation differently, I don't know. I hope so.

Anonymous said...

This blog made me question my mother as to why she forced me to get my ears pierced. Her answer: "because it looked nice". I cried and cried for it not to be done. I can't believe the people who pierce the ears still do it too. Very good blog post, really made me realise that no means force.

Anonymous said...

I got my ears pierced when I was a baby, before I could remember. But I always hated earrings. I didn't wear them often, but on special occasions my mom would bring them out. Needles terrified me in general, even earring needles that were going into a pre-made hole. I would cry and beg my mom not to put them in but she did anyway. They also made my ears itch and puff up. When I was old enough (around 10) I started forcefully shoving her away when she came to put them in.
Now I'm in my 20s and my piercings have sealed and she still complains about what a shame that I let it happen.

shepard said...

My mom made me pierce my ears when I was six. It's a family "funny story" that I had to be put in a headlock for it to happen. I guess my mom didn't take care of the piercings after (expecting me to do it, I gather) and I had chronic ear infections forever after.

Of course then I grew up to be a man, and now the holes in my ears feel really wrong. Woohoo.

Anonymous said...

et encore la ce n'est rien en afrique les petites filles on les
éxsise sans leur demander leur avis parfois

Skimble said...

What happened was awful, a terrible lesson to send the child and something that will make her feel differently about her mother--at least for a while.

Here's the question though; how can parents ensure that their children receive necessary interventions that are painful or unpleasant without teaching them that no means force?

Let's say the same child was at the doctor's surgery and absolutely adamant that she didn't want to get her vaccinations because they hurt. How can her mother ensure her child is vaccinated, protecting her and other children, without completely trampling over her daughter's bodily autonomy and teaching her that no means force?

Rational explanations may work, but there's no guarantee the child will accept the rationale and consent.

Bribery may work, but that's teaching a bad lesson as well.

At that point the parent has two incompatible drives (protect the child's physical health versus protect their right to bodily autonomy) and only one of them can win.

So what's the best way to handle that?

Anonymous said...

Hey I just wanted to say that I saw this quoted on Tumblr, and thank you for posting about it. This literally happened to me when I was a little girl - my mother forced me to have my ears pierced despite how many times I begged not to have it done. I was told that all little girls wanted to have piercings and that I should keep quiet and stop complaining. It's sad that I had never thought about how truly messed up this was until I read your outsider's account of what it looks like to watch this process.

(And as it turned out, I was allergic to the nickel used in the cheap piercings, and I was left with wounds that didn't heal for months and are now very scarred over. If anyone does want a piercing done, please go to a proper piercing parlour and have nonreactive titanium or surgical steel posts used!)

LEMONNIER François said...

François Lemonnier a dit : C'est vrai que contraindre une gamine à se faire percer les lobes des oreilles pour se faire poser des boucles constitue un petit "abus de pouvoir" de la part de sa mère, mais enfin... je crois savoir (heureusement, ou hélas !) qu'il existe des abus d'autorité bien plus dramatiques que celui-là... Mais c'est un fait, il s'agit bien d'un abus d'autorité...

Alice said...

Five years later I’m reading this for the first time. No doubt by this point you’ve been through many various things and may have a different perspective now. Still, here is my reply to your posed question:

This is a poignant question. I think it’s all about conversation and consistency.

How we talk with children about health-essential doctor’s visits is going to differ dramatically from getting ears pierced, or rape.

As you said, the vaccination scenario deals with bodily autonomy vs physical health. If your child would physically suffer as a result of not getting some sort of treatment, while painfully difficult, you would most likely go through with the treatment even if they did not want it. Physical health is very different than something materialistic, or done purely because someone else wants it done to you for their personal gain.

It depends on how you speak with children about doctors. If you actively respect their bodily autonomy and choice in every other aspect, that is, those that will not harm them or are non-essential to survival, that respect should already be established. They may feel betrayed in the moment, and for a while after, but they’ll still be alive to decide whether they are mad at you or not.

As for explanation of what’s happening, just tell them the truth. A child’s understanding of rationale and consent don’t form overnight. If that’s something you’re consistently investing in and helping them understand, you’ll have laid a foundation for them to understand it in time, even if not immediately.