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Girlfriend and I have a daughter (will be 2 soon), and she has a son (7 turning 8 soon) from a previous marriage. Recently we have been butting heads a lot concerning a few behaviors of son towards daughter, and my reactions to them. One behavior in particular is son's continuing to touch daughter when she is yelling or crying for him to stop (usually she will yell 'no' repeatly, swing her arm at him, or try to push him away; given the size difference and her level of language skills, this is all she can do), and when being told by myself or by mother to leave her alone.

Most recently there was an incident where daughter was lying on pillow in bed in her diaper, and son came in and got on bed and started messing with her. She was relaxing and didn't want to be bothered, so as frequently happens, she started saying no and trying to push him away from her. I didn't say anything immediately, because as mentioned, it is a frequent source of family discord, so I try to choose my battles. He then stuck out his tongue and began to lick her leg, between the knee and the hip, at which point I immediately firmly told him to stop and that he should not do that.

Shortly after, when mother was back in the room, I brought it up with her and asked her to have a conversation with him, because I considered it inappropriate. She got angry at me and told me I only thought it was inappropriate because he was not my son, that if he was my son I would not have a problem with it; and because I was raised by strict, religious, prudish parents (which is true, although I have not been religious myself for decades now, and don't feel that I am prudish).

My question is basically, is it normal or okay for a boy of that age to be licking his younger sister like that? Does it warrant a conversation with him about boundaries, respecting personal space and the desire to be left alone/not touched; or is it better to just ignore? Is it something that most parents would be comfortable with, and am I out of line being bothered by it?

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    Tangential to the question, but a red flag the size of a continent: "She got angry at me and told me I only thought it was inappropriate because he was not my son, that if he was my son I would not have a problem with it.." But as you have chosen to have children with this person I guess this is an attitude you'll have to deal with somehow for at least the next 16 years.
    – user47169
    Commented 2 days ago
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    My comment got deleted but I will write it again cause this is much more important than StackExchange moderators. Protect your daughter at all cost. She is your number one priority. Nobody else will defend her except you and you have to. This is not ok at all, babies should not be teased and bullied.
    – Manuki
    Commented yesterday

8 Answers 8

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I would see the main issue that should be addressed already in the first paragraph and the rest just an instance of that. The son is playing/ touching your daughter, she explicitly tells him to stop and he doesn't. That is not ok and needs to be addressed.

He may be well-meaning and just wants to play. This is non-trivial for him and will take a while but should be talked about in every instance where it happens. Also look out for the same constellation between other people. If you try to touch him and he says no, you will respect that and then can point out the similarity to him. He should treat his sister (and other people) the same way he wants other people to treat him.

The licking is odd but then kids have weird ideas occasionally. But if he had tickled her instead the consent issue still remains and I would focus on that.

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    This exactly. Licking isn't particularly strange, my kids lick me and each other from time to time. But it's not really a behavior that should be encouraged, and understanding the concept of consent absolutely needs to be hammered home. I wouldn't worry too much about the problematic behavior being licking in itself, but if the touching ever becomes actually sexual that could hint at something else going on for the boy.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented 2 days ago
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My question is basically, is it normal or okay for a boy of that age to be licking his younger sister like that?

This is definitely not "normal" behavior, normal being defined as occurring in that population with enough frequency that it's observed pretty often. So, your sense that this is something that might need to be addressed is valid.

Is it something that most parents would be comfortable with...(?)

It depends on your culture, but I'm not familiar with a culture that would find this behavior "normal", nor am I familiar with a culture that would treat one episode as absolutely needing addressing. Maybe the child thought it was amusing. If it happened only once, it might merit just a quick correction or even ignoring it. But there's a trend here that's unfortunately common and also concerning, and that's that your 7 year old is repeatedly disregarding the feelings of his sister. This goes beyond simple sibling rivalry. When this happens frequently, especially to a young, relatively defenseless person, it's called bullying. Bullying doesn't need to be physically painful to be of concern. There's plenty of research that shows emotional abuse to be worse in the long run than physical abuse. While the degree to which this may be damaging to your daughter can't be determined by a stranger on the internet, it warrants evaluation and learning ways to address it.

Recently we have been butting heads a lot concerning a few behaviors of [her] son towards [our] daughter...

This is, unfortunately, pretty common in situations like yours. You didn't ask for advice about this, so I'll keep it short: find a family counselor who deals with blended families (most do.)

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oof. That's a lot.

First, I would be clear with your wife that you would have the same response to any young boy doing that (I assume) -- particularly in a repeated fashion. It doesn't matter what your motivation for requesting she (or you) have a talk to her (or your) son about important personal boundaries anyhow. I am concerned the invalidation tactic used by her as well, but that's not really the focus here....

As for the son himself, it may just be a way he is testing boundaries. He certainly needs a discussion about this as that behavior cannot continue with anyone -- especially people around his age. If he does something like that at school it could quickly become a very, very big issue.

Hopefully not, but I feel it's critical to mention here; behavior like that isn't standard and could possibly be learned/mocked from someone treating him that way. It might be a good idea to ask him if someone else has licked him like that -- something silly like "hey bud, where did you learn that from? Was someone licking you?" -- without making a big deal about it. He's likely just being silly, but it couldn't hurt to take a quick double check before writing it off.

I think it's extremely important for your daughter, either way, to show her that the norm is that being touched by folks when you don't want to be, especially on places like the upper thigh, is not an acceptable way for her to be treated (regardless if the brother stuff continues to be an issue). She needs to know that her family will defend her there, the world finds this unacceptable, and not to doubt herself when she feels this way.

Throughout her life, it is very likely that other people are going to try to touch her and she is not going to like it. It's important that she is not confused or hesitant to say no then -- or how to immediately respond when 'no' isn't being accepted by the other person. It's extremely unlikely that she'll remember this instance, but all of the instances of things like this (and how the adults respond around her) will shape how she deals with things like that in the future.

That seems like the most critical bit to me anyhow.

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  • I just want to note that the OP mentioned that it was their girlfriend, not their wife.
    – Daemons
    Commented 15 hours ago
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While everyone is addressing this as a behavioral thing, and there almost certainly is a behavioral component, there might be chemical component to this as well. In short, he may like how she tastes. This could be because:

  1. There is something (like a lotion,...) on her skin that tastes good to him.
  2. She is excreting through her skin something that tastes good to him.
  3. He has some form of deficiency that something on her skin satisfies. (This could be as simple as salt satisfied by sweat.)

These might indicate medical issues in either (or even both) children. I would watch carefully to see if there is any recurrence, including possibly licking other people. If so, consulting medical professionals might be appropriate.

Of course, it is also possible the boy has just found something that bothers the girl (and you), so he does it.

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You have a lot of answers already, I would just add as a father of two boys who are now, thankfully, young adults that whatever could infuriate one of them was used by the other one as the perfect way to start a fight.

Licking their leg would have been one of the better ways if they have had the idea.

There may be zillions of reasons for the behavior and others are better equipped to discuss this but it can also be bothersome, jealousy, and something that makes her yell (and, ideally, get punished) could be a signal that your son is not fine with how the relationship grows.

Or, again, he is the kind of annoying child like mine who would do this to annoy their parents for some reason.

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This is very not normal, not even slightly ok, and absolutely does warrant a conversation about boundaries and consent. It further warrants enforcement of the principles involved, including punishments if necessary. Your girlfriend's son needs to learn to respect consent to (hopefully) stop him from growing up into a bully and then an adult sexual predator.

Your girlfriend evidently is not willing to listen to reason on this topic from you. She might be more willing to listen to her own parents, or other people she trusts who have no connection to you. If you decide to try that avenue, I would strongly recommend clearing it with your girlfriend first. If you talk to her family and/or friends "behind her back", she will probably be upset and angry when she finds outs. Either convince her to ask them (or at least to approve in advance of you asking them), or don't ask them. Even with your girlfriend's approval, though, asking her family/friends is risky, because they might just agree with her.

Alternatively, instead of trying to convince her directly or via her family/friends, I suggest offering her an opportunity to convince you, which you expect to backfire on her. More specifically, appeal to her certainty about this being normal and generally accepted by society at large, and suggest that the two of you essentially "ask the whole damn Internet" to settle the argument. If she believes what she said, she should be very confident that "the Internet" will answer resoundingly in agreement with her.

Important points:

  1. Discuss this with her in advance, so there's no doubt about whether you "shopped around" for an Internet community that agrees with you. Let her believe that the verdict will be in her favor.
  2. Tell her where you want to post the question, and explain factors about it that should appeal to her expressed opinions and make her even more confident that the verdict will favor her.
    1. I suggest Am I the Asshole subreddit. I think your question should be ok by their rules, but there's a chance they might decide it breaks their "No relationship posts" rule. If that happens, you can use AITAH as a fallback option, which is a variant of "Am I the Asshole" created for the express purpose of allowing relationship posts.
    2. The base site, reddit.com, is so incredibly huge that I'd be astonished if your girlfriend hasn't already at least heard of it.
    3. r/AmItheAsshole has 18 million members. It's so enormous that its sheer size would force it to be mainstream whether or not its moderators want it to be, and its moderators want it to be mainstream anyway. r/AITAH, while smaller, still has 1.9 million members.
    4. The membership of r/AmItheAsshole is predominantly secular, not religious, and most certainly not prudish. If you need to convince your girlfriend of its non-prudishness, finding existing posts that demonstrate it beyond any reasonable doubt should be very easy.
  3. Ask your girlfriend for a mutual agreement that both of you will accept the consensus judgement of the community about your post, as expressed by their comments and upvotes. If she truly believes what she said, she should agree to this pretty readily because she'll expect the result to agree with her. If she thinks you might unfairly spin the situation, tell her you'll do it together with her so she can make sure it's fair.
  4. Word the post to focus on the dispute about your son's behavior. Specifically avoid or downplay the topic of your relationship with your girlfriend, to hopefully avoid having to repost on AITAH instead.
  5. Show her your draft of the post before you post it, and ask whether she thinks you're presenting the question fairly. If she points out any perceived unfairness, fix everything she points out until she explicitly agrees that your final version of the post is fair. Post the version of the question that she approved.

I am completely 10000% certain that the answer of the r/AmItheAsshole community will be that you are "NTA" (Not the Asshole), and that your girlfriend most definitely is The Asshole. I also predict multiple highly-upvoted comments saying things to the effect of "WTF is wrong with your girlfriend? How could she possibly believe this?"

Incidentally, I also predict a large number of comments declaring that this is such a major red flag that they believe you should break up with your girlfriend over it, and possibly advising you to call CPS (Child Protective Services) to report your girlfriend for neglecting/abusing your daughter by allowing her son's behavior to continue. Be mentally prepared to see those comments, and keep in mind that the subreddit's members tend to jump to that conclusion more quickly and easily than may be truly warranted.

Hopefully, the weight of numbers of having likely thousands of random non-religious non-prudish people telling her that she's wrong will be more than she can rationalize away and ignore.

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    This is a horrible answer. Playing petty "but reddit said so" games is not the way to go in a relationship. They should talk more.
    – ave
    Commented 2 days ago
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    @ave That doesn’t seem to be what the answer is advocating at all. According to the question, the girlfriend believes it’s normal and accepted for children to continue to touch others when told to stop. Simply telling her that this is not so will obviously not convince her. One strategy that may have a better chance of convincing her that perhaps it’s her experience, not her boyfriend’s, that’s out of the ordinary, would be having thousands of strangers on the Internet say it. And such a realisation is a necessary prerequisite for any meaningful conversation between them about the subject. Commented yesterday
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    @JanusBahsJacquet "That depends entirely on the situation." I agree with what you've expressed. But...If I believed I was doing my very best (and how many of us honestly do? I certainly didn't have all the answers, nor do I now.), I wouldn't change the way I parent because of what amounts to a poll. A qualified Family Therapist, I would trust enough to work through it. Reddit/Reddit like? Nope. Especially if the answers were borderline. Commented yesterday
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    @anongoodnurse Certainly if the results came in at 45/55, I don’t think I’d be likely to be swayed. If it were 97/3, though, I think I’d at least have to admit that I had a warped image of how accepted the thing in question is, and would then approach the whole situation with a more open mind that perhaps a change could be an improvement. A family therapist would then be more likely to be effective than if I went into it thinking that there was no problem and no reason to change anything (in which case I might resent and knee-jerk dismiss even the suggestion of a therapist). Commented yesterday
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    @anongoodnurse A qualified Family Therapist would be much better, of course, but I really doubt OP's girlfriend would agree to even consult one in the first place. She's completely convinced that she's right, and that this whole argument is ridiculous and stupid. I expect that she'd consider the money, time, and effort required for an appointment with a therapist to be a pointless waste. Polling reddit may be less trustworthy, but it is fast, easy, and free. Even if it doesn't convince her outright, it may convince her that consulting with a therapist is worthwhile.
    – Douglas
    Commented yesterday
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Keep in mind, kids often repeat what they see or what they experienced to try and make better understanding of it.

This warrants a conversation with the boy, I would be most concerned if something of this nature happened to the boy. (Has someone licked him like this before? Has he seen someone else being licked like this?)

Again, has someone done things to the boy without consent? Why does he require this sense of control over his mostly helpless younger sister.

It's easy to get mad at kids but it's more important to understand and ask the right questions. If someone is being controlling towards the boy he will project it on his younger sister.

So in summary, instead of being confrontational and controlling with the boy, question his behaviour instead. Learn about each other. Create a level of trust and find the root of his behaviour. You should be his friend and partner.

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The elephant in the room in this question is not the inter-sibling relationship. I think others have spoken to that quite well. The more fundamental issue is with the adults in a relationship where your girlfriend is feeling threatened when you want to talk about her son.

The individual first responsibility of anyone in a primary relationship is to their partner. I've heard many people dispute this, but it falls firmly under the category of "put the oxygen mask on your own face first before assisting someone else". A relationship in trouble it not one that can properly raise children until that is resolved one way or the other. So your individual first responsibility is to her. Hers to you. But yours and her collective first responsibility is to your children. All of them. This is very hard to accomplish when one or more children don't "belong" to one of you. Forming a relationship with someone who has prior children is hard. She needs to feel that you buy in to that idea with her 100%. That you buy in that yours and her first collective duty is to the children. Both children in this case. Equally. If she is getting upset, then this is out of balance. Somewhere inside she thinks that she has to look out for her son because you're not. Whether or not this is actually true is almost irrelevant - I suspect it isn't because you are trying to do what's right here. But she believes it to be true, and that perception is what you need to change. This is a larger issue than the current question, but important because without addressing it situations like this will continue to arise. Until she trusts that you the individual buy in to the idea that "you" as a couple are collectively committed to the loving and raising of both children equally, situations like this will continue to arise.

Fundamentally, it's very likely your girlfriend doesn't really think that this is normal behaviour for her son at all. What she says on confrontation and what she believes inside are not necessarily the same. There is a disconnect because she may believe she can't trust you enough to reveal what she really thinks of this behaviour because of what that means to her son. There could also be some proxy embarrassment and shame involved too. She may be embarrassed at what's happening and that can induce fear responses. So, it's important that when approaching her on this or any subject you try and minimize the opportunity for that. You minimize this by helping her to believe that both yours and her collective duty is to both children. That you aren't so much trying to stop harm of her son to your collective daughter, but trying to stop harm from being done from her son to himself. In the end if she believes that, yes, you want your daughter to feel safe, but that you equally and genuinely want her son to be successful and to foster proper and healthy attitudes, then she may be more open to being honest about what she feels about his behaviour and may be more open to working with you as a parenting team.

It's all done with love. Firmly, but with love. The only way.

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    This answer contains some really good points to consider. It's also not answering the question; it's in effect answering a question not asked, making it "not an answer". As it's valuable, adding an answer to the actual question would be very helpful, and a link or two about how to deal with the communication problem would be ideal. Commented yesterday

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