H was uncertain, so we made a plan. We would hold hands. I would keep him on my lap so that he would have the comfort of the physical connection to my body as he faced something he found scary and uncomfortable. I would be right there, I would not leave him, we would get through it together, and afterward was the promise of the playground at the park across the street.
We made a plan, and still it started badly.
“He doesn’t want to lie in the big boy chair?” she asks.
“No. We made a plan that included my lap,” I tell her.
She is not unfriendly exactly, but she isn’t warm or solicitous and I can see that she is not impressed. I sit down in a chair holding H anyway, and she sits across from us. H hooks both arms around my neck and winds his legs around my waist. I can feel the fear and anxiety in his body vibrate between us, and I remember what he had told me earlier.
“I am not going to open my mouth at the dentist,” he had said.
“Oh. Do you want the dentist to examine your lips?” I had asked him, nervous about what this proclamation forebode, hoping that playfulness would be the antidote.
“Yeah,” he had said, still serious.
And now here we are.
“Do you have kids?” I ask the dental hygienist, trying to find some point of connection, something to use to reassure H that she is friendly, that she is safe.
“No, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years. And before that I was a preschool teacher.” Her answer feels perfunctory. Short.
“She has lots of experience,” I tell H, but he is not reassured, and at this point, neither am I. I try to find another angle.
“How long will this take? Ten minutes? One?” I keep my tone light, but my insides feel like a slowly tightening fist. Moving the air in and out of my body becomes a conscious, effortful activity.
“Oh, only a minute. I’ll be done before your mommy can count to twenty, I bet.”
This information does not comfort H. He is not ready and neither am I, but my mind feels leaden and confused. I can’t think quickly enough to reroute us from this treacherous territory, so I do the thing I think is expected of me by the other adult in the situation. I lie H’s head on her lap, keeping his body half on mine. He immediately turns his head to the side, spilling tears across his face. It was the wrong thing to have done, I feel this even as I am doing it.
“I need you to look at me,” she tells him, placing her hands on either side of his face, moving his head by force.
“H, can you please look at the ceiling?” I ask as a corrective to her behavior, but it is too late. It doesn’t matter. We are not on the same page about how to help a scared and anxious child and are working at cross purposes now.
She pushes her finger into the side of H’s mouth to pry it open and begins to brush.
Tears are pooling in his wide-open, scared eyes.
“I think we need a moment,” I tell her. “Please stop so that we can have a moment.”
“Oh no, this will be done before you know it. It’s better to finish what we’ve started. Otherwise you have to lie him back down and that makes it harder and you know. He’s fine.”
“No. I don’t think he’s fine.”
He is still crying. He is not fine.
“Yes, he’s fine,” she tells me.
See, look, you’re doing so well,” she tells H.
She finishes with his teeth – it is a mercifully short brushing – and releases her hold on his head. He springs back into my arms now as if we were opposite ends of a magnetic pole, clings to me, and sobs.
“You did so well, no sugar bugs!”
Her cheer is jarringly discordant with with what has just happened. I wonder if she thinks that by ignoring H’s feelings she can will them into nonexistence or that by sheer force she can bend them toward happiness, the way she had earlier used her hands to force the direction of his gaze. I am angry and sad. I cannot look at her.
H and I settle on the floor so that he can play with the office’s toys while we wait for the dentist. Tears continue to stream down his face and quiet sobs shudder through his body as he picks back up with the small airport-like structure with the wind sock and satellite dish that he had been playing with before.
Finally the dentist comes, and H is none too happy to see him.
“I will sing to you, sweets,” I tell him. “I will sing Freight Train until we get to California, then we can go to Africa when the dentist is done examining your teeth.”
I close my eyes and rock while I sing softly in his ear. I stop when we reach California.
“I’m not done,” he tells me. “I’m not done being like this.”
“This is how we do things here,” the dentist tells me. “This won’t traumatize him, mom. We’re teaching him that there’s nothing wrong with having his teeth examined.”
And so H is lying down again, his head on the dentist’s lap, the rest of his body on mine. He cries through this examination, too.
When it is all over, we stop to check out, and I am told that I need to make appointments for H to be seen in three and six months.
“I wasn’t happy with what happened today,” I say with a presence of mind that is not like me in situations like this. “I need to think about whether we’ll come back or not. I’ll call you.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” the receptionist asks with compassion.
“I understand that you have certain ways of doing things, that you just want to push kids through the exams, that you think this is best, but that’s not how I parent and I felt pretty bowled over in there.” I feel calm and stillness returning to my body.
“I’m sorry you felt that way,” she says. “We do things that way based on our experience about what works best. It’s not personal.”
“I understand that, and it means that this might not be a good fit. I need some time to think about it. I will call you,” I tell her.
On our walk to the park, H and I have a most bizarre conversation.
“I’m glad we went to the dentist,” he tells me, smiling almost manically.
“Well, I didn’t have a good experience there,” I tell him.
“I did,” he insists.
I don’t know what to say, so I give a noncommittal hmm. We play on the merry-go-round, I give H really super big pushes on the swing, and I try to clear my mind of the thoughts that swirl around so that I might see more clearly what to do.
The next day H and I sit at the edge of the bed to talk. I tell him that we won’t be going back to that dentist again. “You were scared and upset and mama asked the dental hygienist to stop, and she did not, even though she had lost consent,” I told him. “That was not respectful. When you tell someone to stop touching your body, they need to stop. I’m so sorry that happened. We will find a different dentist who will listen to and respect you.”
Listening. Respect. Consent. Boundaries. What mixed signals our culture sends our children about these things. Conventional thinking would have children listen without question and comply immediately with our commands. Conventional thinking would label children disrespectful if they were anything less than obedient and would have adults feel justified in viewing them as such. After all, as conventional thinking goes, we adults wield authority over children simply by virtue of our age, size, and supposed wisdom. We rush through diaper changes as we rush through life, distracted and wanting to be somewhere else. We cajole and coerce children into giving hugs when they don’t want to, into sitting on stranger’s laps despite protests in the spirit of holiday joy. We say things like listening, respect, consent, and boundaries matter, but we treat our children as if they don’t. How are they to learn that these things truly matter when conventional thinking would have us be such poor models? How can we expect them to respect us when we disrespect them?
H may be small, but he is still a human being, deserving of respect for the human dignity with which he was born. He deserves to be listened to. His consent when it comes to his body, mind, and spirit matters. He has boundaries that should not be violated.
So no, I won’t be calling to make more appointments. We will go somewhere else.