Thursday, July 5, 2012

Strangers...and Lizzie's Hair.

I've become much more adept in the past year at handling questions about Seth and Lizzie as they occasionally get fired at me from perfect strangers.  Every once in a while someone asks something that really gets my back up (like, really, could you please stop asking in front of my kids whether their 'real' parents died of AIDS??) and on those occasions the only thing helping me maintain civility is the presence of my kids.  But for the most part, I think I'm getting better and better at stick-handling (sometimes even avoiding altogether) the questions.

But one thing still kinda gets to me.

Why do people feel it their right to touch my daughter's hair??  I don't get it.  I'm not talking about friends or family here - people who know and care about my children.  I'm talking about perfect strangers.  It really, really bugs me.  And it bugs Lizzie, too.

Just yesterday it happened again.  Lizzie and I were dropping the boys off at their morning basketball camp and were watching them from the sidelines for a few moments as they shot some hoops.  Lizzie was leaning on my legs and I had an arm dropped around her shoulders.  We were cheering the boys on.

Then, from my right, a woman I'd never met came right up to us and said that she loved Lizzie's hair.  No 'hello,' no anything to introduce herself.  While she was talking she reached out and touched Lizzie's hair.

No, she didn't really touch it...she manhandled it.  I'd just laboured over putting twists into her hair (and yes, it is still a labour - of love - for me) and they were still looking good.  But the woman not only pulled and stroked a number of twists, she bent over Lizzie's head and picked one of the twists up from where it was hanging over her forehead and started to untwist the twist while saying that she was curious about how it was done.  I stared open-mouthed.

I finally got over my tongue-tied self enough to say something like "oh, you know what? I just put those in and really don't want them untwisted - it takes me quite a while to get that done."

Her response:  "oh, okay."

But she kept stroking Lizzie's head for the few seconds that it took me to further get my wits together and pick Lizzie up.

A few minutes later, after Lizzie and I had said good-bye to the boys and made our escape to the parking lot, I looked at Lizzie's hair and saw that the twist the woman had been handling was entirely undone and flying freely in the wind; another twist, right beside the first one, was partially untwisted.  I felt outraged.

While we were buckling into the van, Lizzie said to me "Mommy, I don't like when people touch my hair."

I know that about her already.  I wouldn't like it either.  I've have taught my kids that they need to receive permission before touching someone's hair; but frankly, my kids don't have an issue about touching other people's hair because what kind of person just goes up to a stranger and handles their hair!!??

In response to Lizzie I said, "I don't like it either that she touched your hair.  It's ok to be a bit mad about that."

Lizzie:  "I want to tell her to please not touch my hair. But that would be not very nice."

Me:  "You know what?  It is totally ok with me if you want to say that to someone.  I've asked people before to please not touch your hair.  I think it's rude that someone would touch your hair without asking you first, and I think what you just suggested saying was actually quite polite."

But I'm annoyed with myself.  I should have said more.  I wanted to but felt embarrassed for some reason - why, I don't really know because it wasn't my behaviour that was embarrassing.  I need to think of a good 'line' that's firm but not too rude, because I just know this is going to happen again.

P.S.  An addendum...

It's Friday morning now, and Lizzie and I just dropped the boys off for their last morning of basketball camp.  The same hair-fondling woman was there again and greeted me as if I was an old friend - waved from a distance and shouted good morning to me.  Huh?  I almost turned around to see if there was someone behind me that she could possibly be greeting instead of me.  But then she started to walk over to us and I knew there was no mistaking that she'd been greeting me.  I picked Lizzie up and turned my body slightly so that she wouldn't be able to touch Lizzie's hair without invading my space, too.  I wondered at her presumption of such a fond greeting.  Does she think that the experience of touching my daughter's hair and messing with her twists creates some kind of instantaneous bond between us?  If so, that sure didn't work for me.  Whatever.  Coward that I am, I didn't linger - all I did was say hi before saying that I had to go; I slid out the door and practically ran for the car.  That worked for me.


  1. Ruth...I get what you say...and I get the stranger too. I'm not sure I can exactly put my finger on it, but Lizzie's hair is irresistible. I get that it's her body and shouldn't be touched, but I remember when I saw her on Sunday, I silently admired her hair, and it was my first impulse to want to touch it, and it was a deliberate choice on my part to lean in and talk to her about her bright blue shirt rather than her hair. I get that she is much much more than her hair, but it is so strikingly seems to me it calls to be touched...even though she has absolutely every right to expect folks like me to not touch it. I resist because I respect her space...but not because I don't want to feel it. I suspect this will be an ongoing problem for her for some time to come, and self advocacy skills will be important for her on this front! Best wishes to you and her as you fight the battle of hair touching!

  2. Thanks for the candour Carolyn, and for lending both perspectives. Love it!

    I see a couple of differences though. FIrst, you've met Lizzie a number of times at church and she recognizes you now. That's already different than being a total stranger.

    Second, I wouldn't have had a problem with you giving her hair a gentle once over, but can never see you undoing her twists in order to appease your curiosity.

    Third, and the most significant recognized your interest in touching her hair and still YOU STOPPED YOURSELF!!! Even though I would have been ok with you touching it and, more importantly, she would have been too because you were not a stranger and you always make the effort to talk with her and engage her. Still, you made a choice to respect her space. Because you understood that it might be a boundary. Many people don't respect that...seemingly especially strangers.

    I should have clarified the difference in touches that I mean. I, too, can totally understand how natural it is to want to touch her hair - it's beautiful and seems hard NOT to touch it. It is a striking feature of Lizzie. I get that.
    And I don't actually have a problem with people doing a casual once-over of her hair if they just can't resist it. Heck, I'm a touchy-feely person, especially with kids, and I can imagine where I've done the same thing to kids I know...maybe even to a kid I don't know really well.

    But would I in any way think it appropriate to walk up to a perfect stranger and her child and, with no introduction, simply start running my fingers through the child's hair and taking apart her twists?? No. And I can't see you doing that either.

    But it happens to Lizzie a couple of times every week, sometimes oftener. Maybe not the taking apart twists part, but the part where a stranger comes up (usually suddenly) and starts to grab her hair. Just last week another woman scared Lizzie by seeming to appear out of nowhere and asking her to raise her chin so that the woman could get a better look (and feel). Lizzie cried after the woman left.

    I agree with you that this is likely going to be an issue Lizzie faces for a long time to come! That's why I'm looking for a good 'line' that I can use to help her in these situations. It's uncomfortable for me, but I need and want to model for her how to address this situation because, though she's little now, the time is coming when she may well be on her own for short periods of time and subject to strangers wanting to feel her hair. Ultimately she's going to need to learn how to deal with it herself; but given that she's only four, right now it's my job...and I'm kinda sucking at it.

    Thanks again Carolyn!!


  3. I think I would simultaneously reach out and touch THEIR hair with a nice comment such as "you have such lovely hair yourself" or the like.

    It will bring it home the point that despite their kind intent it is an invasion on a complete stranger. Touching someone's hair is a very intimate thing.

    Best of luck finding a method that works for you and Lizzie.

    Thoughts from a random stranger....

  4. A good line for Lizzie might be "no!" and stepping back, out of reach if possible. Adults would feel assaulted if someone started touching them! This is adults way overstepping their bounds. (I feel your outrage - my child has also received unwanted attention/touching because of his beautiful dark curls, but certainly his hair doesn't attract the same attention. Also, I am stricken with guilt because I'm pretty sure I touched her hair on Monday, and I KNOW BETTER!!)

  5. Hey random stranger - thanks for the thought. You know, I've thought about touching the other person's hair before but I just don't have the courage to be that invasive by return. I've tried it twice and it just didn't feel right for me. But I do like the addition of the comment about their own hair being so lovely...maybe I'll have to try this again and add the falsely nice comment. It's worth a try.

    Thanks for the idea!


  6. Colleen, you're funny. Yesterday morning Lizzie saw you and yelled out "Aunt Colleen." (not sure if you heard - it was in the parking lot) I'm pretty darn sure you're not the stranger I'm talking about...and I'm also confident that it wasn't you who messed up her twists!!

    I might need to build up to the point of just saying "no" and putting out a hand to intervene, or pulling Lizzie back. Maybe softening the movement with a smile or a comment...I don't know.

    Thanks Colleen.


  7. I think a very polite but firm, "oh, Lizzie doesn't like having her hair touched" should work (you would hope!) with most people. Short, firm and to the point! :)

  8. Kristin -
    that's what I've said a number of times in the past, until Lizzie told me that it embarrassed her. (can't win!) I think she didn't like being the one highlighted as having the problem. I've been working with her on that, hence my telling her this week that it's totally ok for her to say she doesn't like that...but when I'm speaking for her, she does NOT want me to make her the issue. So at this point I need to think of something that enables ME to bear the load of why strangers can't touch her hair.

    I have no idea if that just made sense but I'm hoping!

    Thanks - lovely to see you still here!!!


  9. It's a hard one, for sure. We get this too, but I think not nearly as much as it sounds like you do. (We generally keep our daughter's hair in cornrows... and I've noticed people seem much more tempted to reach out for looser styles. Not that we choose sytles based on how the general public will react to them!)

    So far, I've just told people something like, "oh, sorry, we're teaching our daughter that it's not ok for strangers to touch her". People usually understand that. Maybe that would help make you more of a shield between the stranger and Lizzie... putting the focus on your choice, and helping to stave off embarassment for Lizzie?

  10. Hmm, Dianne...I like that one. That kinda works for my personality as well as for Lizzie's need of not being highlighted. It's also a true statement, and rather apologetic - which works for me, too, because it doesn't feel too rude. Those sound like words I would use.

    The more I think about this, the more I like it. Thank you Dianne!!! When Lizzie and I leave shortly to pick up the boys from their last morning of basketball camp, I'm going to be mulling it over...suddenly I'm almost HOPING that the hair fondler woman tries again...she might just be the first recipient of this new-to-me phrase.

    Oh, and it's also interesting what you said about the style affecting how much her hair might get touched. I can see where something like corn rows might get less of this kind of attention. Sadly I don't know how to do a cornrow...yet! But I'm going to watch to see if this makes a difference.

    Again, my thanks Dianne!!


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  12. It's funny that you should bring this up -- I was just ranting on Facebook the other day about this very thing! It drives us all crazy.

    My Z. is so afraid of being rude to someone (particularly adults) that she will stand there and let them touch her hair even though she hates it. She tells kids at school not to touch it, but they just ignore her. She is so afraid of being "told on," or sent to the principal's office :) that she won't insist on it.

    I'm teaching her that it's NOT rude to say "PLEASE DON'T TOUCH MY HAIR;" in fact, it's extremely rude to touch someone's hair without asking first. But since I harp on, day after day, about being kind, considerate, polite and respectful to others, this seems to really confuse her. I think it's just one of those things that we have to reinforce almost daily.

    However. So far, I always bluntly say to strangers, "Please don't touch her hair." But it seems that these people don't understand that they have just rudely invaded my daughter's privacy. They seem to think that I'm uptight and unreasonable. So I've decided that the next time a stranger (either adult or child) touches Z.'s hair, I'm going to reach out and touch theirs. I'm going to stick my fingers straight into their hair, muss it around a bit, get in their face and ooh and aaah about their hair. Maybe they will get the picture then....

    I'll let you know how it goes. ;)

  13. Ah Gwen, you made me laugh. When you actually DO the hair thing to someone else, will you please tell me!!!???? I'm dying already to know how it goes.

    Interesting that our girls have these things in common...I suspect it's VERY common.

    Thanks Gwen.


  14. Hey Ruth!
    This is one of the few things that I have no patience for. I usually say something along the lines of, "please don't touch her hair." Thus far it has sufficiently embarrassed whoever is touching her hair without making Wubalem the main focus as the reason.
    I completely agree with the commenter who mentioned different hairstyles. When Wubalem has her hair done, she gets more comments about her hair, but less touching than when her hair is free.


  15. HAHAHA!!! I've thought about the whole go for it and tossel their hair about, but then I just think it's plain out gross for ME to have to touch other peoples hair-HAHAHA!!!

  16. I know this is a hard one. It is an invasion of personal space. It is an adult touching a child without permission. So here are my thoughts. I grew up in a very white world. I always thought black hair was stiff and scratchy. Imagine my surprise... Maybe I have a relative who is adopting from Africa and I am scared for them and then I remember about you and your kids.I figure a compliment can open the door to a conversation... Don't be too tough on the lady. IF she reaches for Lizzie's hair again just say "Please don't" and explain that strangers shouldn't touch. If you do it with a smile and a glance at Lizzie the woman should get it! I just think it is important to educate people as well as support Lizzie. So there's my 2 cents. :)

  17. We haven't had too much trouble with this, however, the odd time someone does touch their hair it is usually someone I know (not that that makes it OK). I noticed once in Costco a lady walked by me, and I happened to glance back and saw her give one of our girls hair a squeeze as she went by. I was caught off gaurd, but also, my daughter didn't even flinch. It made me wonder how many times that's happened and I never knew it. I think I will say, "don't touch my daughter's hair" (and I refuse to say "please" first). Also, I'm pretty darn sure that if I was not a white mama but instead a brown mama, none of these other white people would be touching their hair.

    Gwen, seriously? I want to hear, in detail, how your response works out. You go girl!

    On a side note, Drew did tell off a lady in a resturaunt the other day. It was after we had all left and he stayed to pay. I was very impressed with him, because I know I would have let it slide. A lady came up to our table where we were eating with all 8 of our children. She ignored all of our bio kids and pointed to one of our daughters and said, "I would like to take you home with me. Would you come home with me?" And our daughter shook her head no. Then she looked at our other daughter and repeated the same question to which our daughter said no. STRANGE! What would make a person do that? My hubby told her how inapproriate that was (she said she just thought they were cute and meant no harm). My hubby said he understood that, but it is still inapproriate. It's obvious that they are adopted, how do you think that makes them feel to think that some stranger has the right to take them home!

    Ruth, sorry for the vent. maybe you could do a post on these types of remarks?