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I don't own my child's body

By Katia Hetter, CNN
June 21, 2012 -- Updated 0109 GMT (0909 HKT)
Some experts advise parents not to make their children hug and kiss relatives, so children will feel in control of their bodies.
Some experts advise parents not to make their children hug and kiss relatives, so children will feel in control of their bodies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Katia Hetter does not tell her daughter she must hug or kiss visiting relatives
  • The Sandusky case solidified her resolve to let her child make choices about her own body
  • A personal safety expert agrees that children shouldn't be compelled to touch anyone

Editor's note: Katia Hetter is a travel writer for CNN. She also covers parenting and relationship issues.

(CNN) -- My daughter occasionally goes on a hugging and kissing strike.

She's 4. Her parents could get a hug or a kiss, but many people who know her cannot, at least right now. And I won't make her.

"I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won't make you do it," I told her recently.

"I don't have to?" she asked, cuddling up to me at bedtime, confirming the facts to be sure.

No, she doesn't have to. And just to be clear, there is no passive-aggressive, conditional, manipulative nonsense behind my statement. I mean what I say. She doesn't have to hug or kiss anyone just because I say so, not even me. I will not override my own child's currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch.

I figure her body is actually hers, not mine.

It doesn't belong to her parents, preschool teacher, dance teacher or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn't have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.

The trial of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach accused of sexually abusing young boys, has only strengthened my resolve to teach my kid that it's OK to say no to an adult who lays a hand on her -- even a seemingly friendly hand.

Sandusky's comments on child rape allegations

"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 Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention. "This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so 'he'll like me' and kids enduring bullying because everyone is 'having fun.' "

Protection against predators

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, according to Ursula Wagner, a mental health clinician with the FamilyWorks program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago. None of the child victims of sexual abuse or assault she's counseled was attacked by strangers, she said.

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Sometimes a child picks up on something odd about your brother-in-law that no one knows. It may not be that he's a sexual predator. He may just have no sense of boundaries or tickle too much, which can be torture for a person who doesn't like it. Or he may be a predator.

"It sends a message that there are certain situations [when] it's not up to them what they do with their bodies," said Wagner. "If they are obligated to be affectionate even if they don't want to, it makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse later on."

Why wait until there's trouble? Parenting coach Sharon Silver worked hard to cultivate her children's detector. Silver says her sons easily pick up on subtle clues that suggest something isn't quite right about particular people or situations.

In your child's case, it may be that something's off about Aunt Linda or the music teacher down the street.

"It's something inside of you that tells you when something is wrong," said Silver. Training your child to pay attention to those instincts may protect him or her in the future.

Having sex to please someone else

Would you want your daughter to have sex with her boyfriend simply to make him happy? Parents who justify ordering their children to kiss grandma might say, "It's different."

No, it's not, according to author Jennifer Lehr, who blogs about her parenting style. 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," said Lehr.

"Certainly no parent would wish for their teenager or adult child to feel pressure to reciprocate unwanted sexual advances, yet many teach their children at a young age that it's their job to use their bodies to make others happy," she said.

We can't be rude

You might think my daughter's shiftless parents are not teaching her manners, but that's not true. She will shake your hand in greeting or give you a high-five when we're saying goodbye. She knows how to set the table and place a napkin in her lap. She even has me saying a little all-inclusive blessing she brought home from school.

We've trained her to say please and thank you so often that she'll say it back to me when I ask her anything. "What did you say?" I sometimes ask her when I didn't hear her. "Please?" she'll answer. No, I meant what did she actually say? (Maybe we're overdoing it.)

Once a cheater, always a cheater?

She has to be polite when greeting people, whether she knows them or not. When family and friends greet us, I give her the option of "a hug or a high-five." Since she's been watching adults greet each other with a handshake, she sometimes offers that option. We talk about high-fives so often she's started using them to meet anyone, which can make the start of any social occasion look like a touchdown celebration.

"When kids are really little and shy, parents can start to offer them choices for treating people with respect and care," said van der Zande. "By age 6 or 7, even shy kids can shake somebody's hand or wave or do something to communicate respect and care. Manners -- treating people with respect and care -- is different than demanding physical displays of affection."

It creates more work

Refusing to order her to hand out hugs or kisses on demand means there's more work to keep the relationships going and keep feelings from being hurt. Most of our extended family live far away, so it's my job to teach my kiddo about people she doesn't see on a daily basis.

We make sure to keep in contact with calls and Skype and presents. In advance of loved ones' visits, which usually means an all-day plane ride, I talk a lot about how we're related to our guests, what they mean to me and what we're going to do when they arrive. I give them plenty of opportunity to interact with her so she can learn to trust them.

I explain to relatives who want to know why we're letting her decide who she touches. And when she does hug them, the joy is palpable. Not from obligation or a direct order from Mom.

And while I hope I'm teaching my child how to take care of herself in the future, there are benefits to allowing her to express affection in her own way and on her own timeline. When my child cuddled up to my mother on the sofa recently, happily talking to her about stories and socks and toes and other things, my mother's face lit up. She knew it was real.

Did your parents make you hug and kiss relatives? Are your kids required to give grandma a hug? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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