Editor’s Note: Katia Hetter is a CNN features writer who covers parenting, relationships, books, entertainment and travel. This story has been updated from a version published in 2012.
My daughter occasionally goes on a hugging and kissing strike.
She’s 7, and she’s been holding these wildcat strikes since she was 3 or 4. Her parents can get a hug or a kiss, but many people who know her cannot, at least not all the time. And I won’t make her.
“I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it,” I first told her three years ago.
“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, uncles and aunts, school teachers 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.
I shuddered at stories of Josh Duggar’s “inappropriate touching” of his sisters, accusations that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted women after drugging them and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach convicted of sexually abusing young boys. And they strengthen 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.
“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.
Sometimes a child picks up on something odd about your brother-in-law that no one knows. Maybe he isn’t a sexual predator. Maybe he has no sense of boundaries. Maybe he tickles 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,” Wagner said. “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,” Silver said. 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 may 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,” Lehr said.
“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.”
We can’t be rude
You might think my daughter’s shiftless parents are not teaching her manners, but that’s not true. She has to say “please” and “thank you,” set the table, clear her dishes and thank everyone and everything that makes her meals possible.
She has be polite when greeting people, whether she knows them or not. When family and friends say hello, 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,” van der Zande said. “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.
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We make sure to keep in contact with calls and Skype and presents. In advance of loved ones’ visits, which often means an all-day plane ride, I talk a lot about 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. There will be no 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 cuddles up to my mother on the sofa, happily talking to her about her favorite books and Girl Scouts and other things, my mother’s face lights up. She knows my daughter’s love is real.