Don’t be surprised if Christmas family get-togethers feel a little less loving this year as parents increasingly drop the insistence on their young children to kiss and hug older relatives they rarely see.
With stories swirling around the media of rogue priests, scout leaders, teachers, celebrities, stepmothers and stepfathers being accused of paedophilia, many parents are questioning the habit of encouraging their sons and daughters to sit on crusty, old ‘Uncle Cecil’s’ knee for a kiss and cuddle.
Uncle Cecil may be a harmless fellow, but if he rarely makes an appearance in children’s lives and insists on hugs at family events, it is possible that the message being picked up by young ones is that it is okay to be affectionate with someone you don’t really know.
In a bid to protect their children from potentially finding themselves in a situation where they receive unwanted attention, especially of the sexual kind, parents are telling them it is okay to say ‘no’ to a cuddle.
Girl Guides Australia supports its US sister association’s advocacy against forcing young girls to be affectionate as a matter of course and regularly republishes views from their experts.
“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “but the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.
“Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help. Give your girl the space to decide when and how she wants to show affection.”
The growing awareness to re-educate parents about allowing their children to choose who they are affectionate with is being fuelled by US organisations such as Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International (KTFI) and Heartland Alliance.
“When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,” said KTFI executive director Irene van der Zande in a CNN interview.
In the same article, mental health expert Ursula Wagner of Heartland Alliance goes further: “Forcing children to touch people when they don’t want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people known to the children they abuse.” She claims none of the child victims of sexual abuse or assault she has counselled was attacked by strangers.
Parenting blogger Jennifer Lehr asserts that ordering children to kiss or hug an adult they don’t want to touch teaches them to use their body to please you or someone else in authority or, really, anyone.
“The message a child gets is that not only is another person’s emotional state their responsibility but that they must also sacrifice their own bodies to buoy another’s ego or satisfy their desire for love or affection,” Ms Lehr said.
While these views may seem far-fetched, hurtful and rude to most elderly relatives, the fact remains that in the wake of revelations about widespread sexual preying on children, our society is rethinking the types of intergenerational relationships which were once considered normal.
If you find yourself in a situation where a young relative does not want a kiss or a hug, offer a high-five or handshake instead. This will diffuse the tension and respect the child’s refusal of intimacy while still providing an opportunity to greet and acknowledge each other.
Do you expect young family members to cuddle you? How would you react if one of them decided they did not want to hug or kiss anymore? Do young children have a right to refuse physical contact with certain members of the family?