Forcing your kids to hug or kiss relatives sends a terrible messages to kids of all genders about sexual consent and bodily autonomy
As we get busy brining turkeys and baking pies, many of us are also expecting to see friends and family from near and far over the Thanksgiving holiday. This can include people that your kids know and love as well as more distant relations who are less familiar. But whoever they are, it’s important that your kids aren’t forced to physically interact with them in any way that they aren’t comfortable, no matter what.
Consent is at the foundation of healthy relationships, and many experts think that it’s also a fundamental lesson that can help prevent sexual abuse and sexual assault. While teens need to learn lessons about consent as it relates to romance and sex, kids of all ages need to learn about consent as it relates to bodily autonomy, the act of having control over what happens to your physical being.
One of the best consent lessons comes when kids hear from their parents that no one can touch them without asking first: not even grandma. In addition, they should know that they shouldn’t force themselves onto others, either, without a quick verbal request.
“Physical touch should never be coercive,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told Today. “It is super confusing to send kids the mixed messages of body privacy and body safety and then force them to do something intimate with their bodies.”
In other words: no kid should endure affection that’s unwanted, or be told that it’s normal to do so. In fact, some of the statements you might make to get your kids to accept a hug or kiss might be the same ones that an abuser will try to use down the road: “How about just a quick kiss?” “Do it because she loves you,” or “He’s come all this way to see you.”
In addition to letting your kids know that they don’t owe anyone a hug or a kiss, it’s a really, really good idea to let your relatives know the rules of your family, too. Great Aunt Martha might be offended if a kid refuses a hug, but if she knows ahead of time to ask, and to not be offended at the answer, your day might go a little smoother. Understand that adults, especially older adults, aren’t familiar with concepts like consent and bodily autonomy, and that they might appreciate a little primer to feel more in the loop.
You can also give your relatives tools to help them interact with your kids in a healthier way. Take a page from kindergarten classrooms around the country, like the one below, where kids can pick a greeting each morning that they’re comfortable with, from a hug to a high-five to a fist bump. With that many different greeting options, kids are much more likely to be comfortable with a physical interaction, not to mention that they’re given choice and control.
And just as it’s important to teach kids how to be comfortable saying, “no” to unwanted physical interactions, it’s incredibly important for adults to mirror the correct behavior when rejected. If your kid says they don’t want a hug from Uncle Mitchell, make sure Uncle Mitchell doesn’t get angry, defensive, or disappointed. The correct reaction is to say, “Okay, maybe next time,” or, “Okay, I feel that way sometimes, too,” or “How about a high five instead?”
On your kids’ side, you can ask them before a big day if they have a way they’re comfortable interacting.
“It is totally reasonable to ask your kid ahead of time to be creative to make people feel special if they don’t want to (touch) them,” Gilboa told Today.
It doesn’t have to be a physical interaction at all — a kid might sing a song, show off a piece of art, or share a video of their last soccer game or school play. Because really, it’s getting to know one another better that’s important, not a symbolic (and sometimes forced) hug or kiss.