“Okay, here are the rules. You can go medium fast, but not too fast. First under my chin, then my tummy, then behind my knees. No feet. Okay, go.”

I listen to my four-year-old daughter as she spells out her rules, then I do what she tells me. First, I tickle her under her chin, then on her tummy. “No ribs! No ribs!” she shouts, breathless with giggles.

Then I go on to tickle behind her knees, gently. “You don’t have to keep both hands in the same place, you know,” she says.

When it gets too much, she says stop. And I stop, immediately, stepping back and putting my hands up in the air with a smile. 

She is testing me and testing herself, trying out different flavors of experience and honing in on the ones that are the most delightful to her. And at each step, she is telling me what she wants, articulating it clearly and kindly.

It is a delight to witness, and something that I can see is so natural, so easy for her, with someone she loves and trusts so deeply. But will it always be so?

It is a deep physical intimacy we share with our children, and not just because we are the caretakers of their well-being. We delight in their small bodies: the shape of them, the round curve of the belly, the softness of the tiny hand that slips into our own, the warmth of them as they sleep, the smell of them. They give their bodies to us so completely and with such open hearts, and in a way that they may never do again with anyone else.

When my daughter was two and first started lifting up her chubby arms to hug my neck, or plant little kisses on my cheeks, this boundless giving filled me with equal parts awe and terror. I felt a deep responsibility to treat her love with the respect that it deserved – and a deep fear at how easily this trust could be exploited.

But part of my job is to show her as clearly as I can exactly what it should look, and sound, and feel like when someone you love treats your body, your needs, and your desires with respect. Just as I want my daughter to grow up feeling safe, strong, and secure, I want her to know what to expect – or to demand – from someone she loves.

Four-year-olds are great at demanding, in a way that I am not.

“Get me some milk!” my daughter barks, as I set her lunch in front of her at the table.

I hear myself pushing back against her demands daily.

“Try that again, sweetheart,” I remind her, more often than not with a frustrated edge to my voice.

Her demands seem constant, and at times infuriating. (Why can’t you put on your own shoes?) Parsing those demands is a constant negotiation, an exercise in the meaning of our relationship. I weigh her needs against my own, always knowing that there is no measure for these things. Yet I must make these imprecise calculations, because I can neither give in, nor hold out, all the time. I seek a balance, not knowing quite what it will look like, but grasping for it with what I know of her, and of me.

Most days, any balance between her needs and my own feels unattainable. Someone usually ends up unhappy. I try to make sure it isn’t her. But I also try to make sure that she is aware that I have needs, and that she understands what happens when two people’s needs come into conflict. Decisions must be made (she is already very good at brokering compromises). Conversations need to be had. There is no set way to weigh what she wants against what I want, and yet we do it, daily. We do our best.

I struggle to articulate to her why I respond differently to “Get me some more milk” and “Tickle me more gently behind the knees.” Why do I satisfy one demand so willingly and not the other?

Why indeed? I suppose it’s because, if I am going to teach my daughter that there’s one area of her life where she does not have to be polite, it is when she’s advocating for her own body. As important as that is to me, I’ve been on the wrong side of it more than once.

The other day, I saw her scratching at a spot on her face that has been worn raw by the ravages of a cold and, not thinking, I reached over and swatted her hand away from her face without a word. She turned to me, enraged, and screamed, “Don’t you ever do that again, Mother! That was not okay!”

I did not defend myself, because she was right. It wasn’t okay. And while I won’t have my daughter screaming at me to get her some more milk or put on her shoes, I absolutely do want her to scream when her consent is on the line.

I want her to hold on to that sense of outrage, that fierce defense of her own body and needs, as she grows into adolescence and adulthood. As she encounters people who are less generous, less attentive, less willing to let her call the shots. As she fights the battles we all fight to keep at bay the hands that go where they don’t belong – the encroachments on our bodies, our space, our selves.

So we play games. We tickle, we fight, we roll around on the grass pretending to be monsters. We play a game that we agree to play, together, but she is the one making the rules. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.