Christmas, Cuddles and Consent
With the holidays fast approaching, I have seen a few articles covering the topic of forcing children to show physical affection, but I decided it was time to organise my thoughts and put into words my own take on the subject.
Parents all too often feel pressure from relatives who want hugs or kisses from their child. It can be hard to say no to this pressure – you may feel that your child is being rude by not hugging their aunt or grandma, that you as a parent are being judged by your family for raising an impolite child. Also, awkward situations come up where you know your child doesn’t particularly like a certain relative, and you might feel guilty about that, and try to encourage your child into physical affection to try to appease said relative.
If you have difficulty justifying your reasons for not making your child show physical affection, or if you just find it hard to do, or you’re just curious about why ‘just a hug’ can be damaging, then I hope that is where this post can help you.
Children are learning all of the time. They have to learn everything, from how to walk, how to speak their native language, and how to interact with the world around them. It is our duty to do our very best to raise our own children to be strong and capable at dealing with the world around them. Children need to learn how to be assertive, they need to learn how to say no, they need to learn how to stand up against emotional blackmail and guilt trips, not be conditioned into caving into them. Because that is what we are doing every time we ignore it when a child says no – and that means verbally or non-verbally.
Consent is important, consent is everything. We all had our worlds rocked by the #MeToo campaign, discovering just how widespread sexual assault is, hearing stories of just how many women and men have been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by a person they just didn’t feel able to say no to – either because they were worried it would destroy their reputation, destroy their career or simply just because they did not have the assertive skills to advocate for themselves.
How many children have been raised to believe that saying no to physical affection is rude? Why is that? Why is it that we don’t respect children’s bodily autonomy, children who are easily frightened and intimidated? Especially if they are forced, guilt tripped or coerced into being fairly intimate with someone that they may not know very well, someone who is a lot bigger than them, someone who they may even be afraid of? And even if none of those things apply, and the child simply doesn’t feel like being hugged today, it shouldn’t matter. Children’s bodily autonomy should be respected.
At what point does a child go from being young enough that ‘saying no to physical affection is rude’, to then being old enough that they’re supposed to be assertive and ‘stick up for themselves’? It is all too often the same parents who will force their child to hug people, and then be shocked when their child displays an inability to stand up for themselves. Also, at what point do you draw the line on what physical affection is okay to force upon children?
A family may have conditioned their child that it is rude or hurtful to say no to a hug – perhaps with the relative even going as far as pretending to cry just to get a hug or kiss from a child. But has anyone sat the child down and said “You are only allowed to hug or kiss relatives. If anyone ever tries to touch your private area or try to get you to touch their private area, you should say no. But with kisses and hugs, you are not allowed to say no.” That doesn’t make sense at all, does it? How can you condition a child not to say no most of the time, but then expect them to be able to do so when it truly matters the most? You’re either teaching your children to be assertive, to stand up for themselves, to say no, and to know that they are in control of their own bodies, or you are conditioning them to not stand up for themselves, to feel helpless, to feel like they can’t say no, and even leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault in the future.
Who sits their teenage girl down and says, “Honey, I know when you were younger, we told you it was rude to say no when someone tries to kiss you. But now that you’re older the rules have changed. If a boy tries to kiss you and you don’t want him to, you can say no. If a boy tries to touch you and you don’t want him to, you can say no. If a boy tries to have sex with you and you don’t want him to, you can say no, and you don’t need to feel guilty for it. I know I’ve spent the last 13 years teaching you that it is rude not to kiss someone when they ask you to, but I want you to unlearn all of that now and do exactly the opposite.”
You can see how ridiculous this is. Children need to be taught from birth that they have the right to say no to physical affection. That they have the right to be asked for hugs, not ordered to give hugs and punished or manipulated if they don’t want to. Children deserve the exact level of bodily autonomy as adults – or dare I say, more so, as they are still so new to the world, and may not be very confident at expressing themselves, or may even be young enough that they are actually incapable of expressing themselves.
Tips for Protecting Children’s Bodily Autonomy
If anyone needs some tips for protecting their child’s bodily autonomy, or perhaps this post has made you reconsider how you act with other people’s children, I’ve put together some tips that will hopefully help people tackle this type of situation more easily.
1. Always ask the child if they want a hug or a kiss. Even your own children. As their parent, you are the best person to teach them that they are deserving of this type of respect and ability to consent to affection. If the child is always given respect and ability to consent in the home, then this is what they will come to expect outside of the home.
2. Recognise your privilege. If you do not know a child very well – for example, if they haven’t made any move towards initiating physical contact with you of their own accord – don’t ask for hugs or kisses. Remember that you are bigger than they are, and they view you as an authority figure. They may find it difficult to say no to you, even if that isn’t your intention.
3. If you know your child isn’t a fan of physical affection, try to make this clear before a situation arises when family members may start to ask for hugs. Obviously some stubborn family members will ignore this, so expect to intervene on your child’s behalf if they are not able to, and model the assertiveness you would like them to feel able to express for themselves some day.
4. Personally, I like to make very clear to people that it is my child’s choice whether or not they choose to hug someone. I tend to initiate the situation myself by asking my child “Would you like to give (this person) a cuddle? You don’t have to.” Usually, the person follows my lead and confirms, “Yes, you don’t have to.” If my child chooses not to hug that person, I let them know that that is just fine. If a child says no to hugs from you, reassure them that that is just fine.
5. Another favourite I have heard of is to offer a range of choices to the child, “Would you like to give your uncle a hug, a handshake or a high five?” This one may be more likely to appease more difficult relatives, but may not be a good option if you have a particularly timid child.
6. If you know you may run into situations like this, and your child isn’t already assertive enough to say no for themselves, expect to have to intervene on their behalf. If you don’t have very good assertiveness skills – I know I don’t – rehearse in your head or say out loud the phrases that you would like to say to those relatives. “Sorry, she doesn’t feel up to giving out hugs today.” “We are teaching him that he can say yes or no to hugs.” It may be difficult and some feelings may be hurt, but the fragile ego of an adult is, in my opinion, not even worth a second thought compared to the effect that their forced affection, guilt trips, emotional blackmail or coercion will have on your vulnerable child.
As you raise your child, bear in mind the type of teenager or adult you want them to be. If their first partner tries to initiate sex when they’re only 13, do you want them to be able to confidently, assertively and repeatedly say no? Demanding that their autonomy be respected, as that is what they have been raised to expect from people? Or would you rather they reluctantly gave in to the pressure, because they were too worried about ‘upsetting’ their partner, after spending their entire life around adults who fake-cry in order to guilt them into cuddles and kisses?
Do you want to raise a child who can defend themselves? Or do you want to raise another #MeToo story?