8.5

No, My Child Does Not Have to Hug You: Why I’m Raising my Toddler to Understand Consent.

Christiaan Briggs/Flickr

Each year around Christmas, millions of Americans spend time with loved ones.

We cook and drink and laugh and argue and drive to gather in the warm homes of folks that we call “Friends and Family.” Kids play and fight over toys and video-games. Adults cook and drink and argue politics in the kitchen and at the table.

Unequivocally, we touch.

In the winter of 1996, my cousin threw my toy car into the river in front of my grandparent’s house. I was heartbroken, furious. He insisted to the adults later that I wasn’t sharing the aforementioned hot wheels. The “solution” that was insisted by one adult, was that he mutter an apology and we “hug it out.”

But I didn’t want to hug him. He was my age, and posed no threat, but I was upset, furious and confused. Why was my relative telling me I had to wrap my arms around his skinny body, press our chests together and hold this pose? Would that bring my car back?

Our society does not teach children how to voice consent.

Our society does not give our children the tools to protect themselves from physical and sexual abuse: tools to erect boundaries. We teach our kids to play games where we tickle them and hold them down while they laugh and scream, “No, no, no.” We coerce them to hug or kiss Nana or Uncle or Cousin, even when they protest. We teach our young ones that certain people are allowed access to their bodies, simply because of who those people are. We tell girls that boys can break their pencils and snap their bra straps because “That’s how boys flirt.”

Instead of teaching our children to acknowledge consent, we raise them to ignore coercion.

I’ve watched a toy be taken from one small child to be given to another in the name of “sharing.”

I’ve seen my relative demand kisses from the dates of his nephews, and everyone chuckles nervously because “He’s just a dirty old truck driver and that’s how they are.”

I’ve learned of a friend who was molested by her stepfather and told by her siblings, “At least he didn’t rape you, let it go.”

People with wholesome affronts, like Bill Cosby, The Duggars, or Jared the Subway Guy are all proven quite capable of atrocities against their own friends and family. Our society makes it quite easy for abusers to commit their assaults, because we do not teach people how to respect consent.

What can we do instead?

Do not force your child to hug or touch someone, no matter what the relationship. Do not allow any family member or friend to use a guilt trip. While unorthodox for some, simply state to Nana or Pop-pop that, “We are teaching [child’s name] to understand and respect consent. Thank you for understanding.”

If a family member expresses hurt feelings, show them this article. If you are reading this article and you think I’m wrong, I challenge you to articulate in the comments as to why any person should ever be forced to allow access to their body. Please offer some objective information, with supporting evidence. I’ll wait. When you’re done with that, please Google search “acquaintance rape”, “rape culture”, “coercion” and “consent”.

Lots of us can recall the innocuous, mothball kisses wetted upon our unwilling cheeks by Nana or Pop-pop. Some of us know what it’s like to be fondled by an uncle or cousin or step-whatever. There are adults reading these words who are thankful this holiday season, only to be old enough that they no longer are forced to be near their abusers.

To any person reading this, you do not owe your body to anyone.

Law enforcement, mental health professionals, therapists and counselors all know that acquaintance rape is the most common kind of sexual assault. Children are far more likely to be molested by a member of the household than by a stranger.

As an adult woman of nearly thirty, I still meet men my age or older who express hurt feelings when I politely refuse to hug them. I’m still made to feel like the “weirdo” or bad guy when I point out that full contact isn’t necessary. “Oh, you must meet a lot of creepy men, and that’s why you don’t want to hug me goodbye”, said a non-profit politician, after a casual lunch meeting. “No, I don’t hug people I’m not intimate with.”

Children and adults do not deserve to be made to feel guilty for not touching any other person, and it’s no surprise that it still happens.

I have a small daughter. When she asks me to chase her, she giggles, “Catch me! Yes, yes!” and when she says “No!” I freeze. When we leave playgroup or a friend’s house, I ask her if she wants to give a hug or high five, or even a wave. She gets to choose. These things aren’t difficult; they are just different than how many of us were raised. So many of us, especially women, know that burning, sickening feeling of guilt and fear when we are suddenly pressured to be physical with others in order to be perceived as polite.

As a parent, I’m still dismayed by other parents who force their fighting children to “hug it out”. I’m disappointed in parents who discourage their daughters and sons from telling them about the playmate who hit them or held them down during playtime. I’m disappointed in the moms and dads who put a screaming baby on stranger’s lap because he’s suited like Santa Clause in order to attain that Family Photo for the Fridge.

When a child has been instructed to allow a person to touch them, without regard to that child’s requested boundaries, how can we expect them to reinforce those boundaries on their own?

Enough of this. My daughter does not need to hug or kiss any person unless she wants to, and that includes me.

Be happy and safe this holiday season. Give love to those who you deem worthy and remember: you don’t owe the gift of touch to anyone, ever.

 

Relephant Bonus:

 Green Eggs & Consent

~

Author: Elle Stanger

Apprentice editor: Heather Lacy; Editor: Caroline Beaton

Image: Christian Briggs/ Flickr

 

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Mark LaPorta Dec 25, 2018 7:39am

Sorry for your loss. Careful what you ask for, especially when it’s all based on ego. This double-bind will likely show up as the child’s schizophrenia in many years, and no one will remember why.

And having what are actually two concepts in a headline is fraught with hazard.

What issue of Hustler? I like the articles.

Dar Mar 5, 2016 8:15am

I see some info as good advice. But be careful not to raise up a child with no emotion. Afraid to accept love in its kindest form. I wouldn't want my children or grandkids to be disassociated from healthy relationships.
I certainly love to hug my grandkids esp if I haven't seen them in a while.
I am pretty thankful after reading this that they are willing to give Nannie a hug back/ even harder 🙂
I am also thankful they are shy around strangers and stay close.
Teach children good and bad touch of course and be sure they know you will hear and listen to them if they encounter a concern.
Most importantly keep them close and eyes opened. When your not around them(school etc) ask lots of question.
We cannot unfortunately guarantee 100% safety but if we strive for that we are doing the best job we can.
All I can say is I can't promise Nannie would be safe on the streets if someone touches one of mine.

Nicole Jan 7, 2016 3:34am

To start out, let me say that I agree- children need to be educated on consent, and understand that it is okay to say no, and they should not have to feel bad about it because it is their body, and they are allowed to decide what physical contact is comfortable for them. There was just one point you made that kind of bothered me a bit—- mainly how you compared simple hugs to those horror stories we hear on the news. I'm a teacher (for really little ones- ages 2-4), and I am currently teaching in Uganda, Africa, though I have taught in Canada as well. Now, I do not tell my students to "hug it out", and if I ever take a toy from a child, it is after much discussion, with multiple opportunities for them to resolve whatever issue it is on their own— or they were harming others/themselves and needed immediate intervention. But one of the big things I have noticed in teaching here (Uganda) rather than in Canada is my freedom to respond to a crying child who needs a hug but does not know how to express or articulate their emotions enough to convey that need- or they are simply too overwhelmed by the feelings they are experiencing. I know teachers are not parents, and that is very important. But teachers are also with your children for a big portion of the day, and are helping/guiding your children as they develop socially, emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. By giving a hug to a child, you are showing them that it is okay, they are safe, that you acknowledge what has happened to them, and you are helping them to learn ways of coping- which is essential as they grow up into adulthood. Back in Canada I would hesitate- I would have to think about the appropriate "tap" on the shoulder, or a high five- which are all good (though not always sufficient). But a child, though young, can see when you hesitate, and though they may not be able to convey themselves fully, they still feel and understand a lot more than we adults give them credit for. That being said, I know that those regulations have been made in response to the horrible acts committed against children in environments that they should have been safe or protected. And it is good for teachers out there who are overly touchy to be told that is not okay, and for us to have measures in place to protect children. But this growing fear is starting to deprive children of some of the essential needs in their early development. I fear that one day our society will have turned wonderful expressions of affection, trust and warmth into something that children define as "bad", when it can be so healing and good for their social and emotional wellbeing. But I love that you wrote this- because it truly is something I personally try to educate my students about. I'll ask my students "Would you like a hug?" to try and show them that they do have that power to say no (though if they are 2 and crying sometimes just giving them the hug is best- but if they move as if to say "no" then respecting that is important). I talk to them, having them think in others' perspectives- helping them to develop empathy and their own critical thinking. Many children in Uganda are abused, and though it is illegal, physical punishment is still prevalent and accepted in some public schools. It is heart-breaking. But I also see the benefits my students have from having their emotional needs met as they learn about the world (which is an International school that follows international standards). There are appropriate situations for these things- and I hope that instead of saying to teachers that they cannot hug a crying child, or hold their hand when they need encouragement, or pick them up because that is "too intimate", that teachers are taught to instead ask if the child wants to be picked up, or offer the hand without forcing the touch on the children. Body language speaks volumes! And teaching them about areas that should never be touched. But anyways, I'm just a teacher- not a parent, though there are many children that I care for deeply, it is not the same. And as I continue in this profession I am sure my opinions may change- but on the prohibiting of hugs to children from teachers I will always find that rather silly (with my age group anyways). Thanks, and I hope you do keep advocating for children, who either do not know, or cannot convey enough to defend themselves and advocate for their own rights.

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Elle Stanger

Elle Stanger is an activist, feminist and sex worker based in the Pacific Northwest. She has been featured in Hustler magazine, Salon.com, Huffington Post, and hosts a sex and dating column “Elle Oh Elle” for Thrillist. You can connect with Elle on Twitter, Instagram and her NSFW blog.