When the US Girl Scouts put out a pre-holiday reminder to parents that their daughters don’t owe anyone a hug, even at the holidays, it was taken as a sign of the (dismal) times. “At a time when issues of sexual harassment and consent are in the news,” began the CNN story on the piece.
Reactions on Twitter made the connection, too:
And it’s come to this in 2017. https://t.co/ioVpZaQPfb
— Sophia (@SophiaCannon) November 21, 2017
But it hasn’t just “come to this”. It’s been this for a long time – the advice and the problem it addresses are nothing new. More importantly, this advice isn’t a reaction to the news. It’s about teaching kids the importance of consent and empowering them to speak up for their own needs and desires, which are evergreen lessons.
The Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr Andrea Bastiani Archibald said, in the Girl Scouts’ post, “the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime.” This applies to kids of all genders. It lays the groundwork for a strong understanding of consent, and can influence a kid’s relationship with her body – by telling her that she’s in control of who she hugs, you’re also telling her that her body is hers, not for serving other people’s feelings. That has to do with consent, but also body image, too.
Enforcing your child’s bodily autonomy isn’t just an investment in her future strength and safety. Dr Archibald adds, “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.” (Again, this applies to children of all genders.) Reminding your child that she has the power to say “no” to physical contact, even from a beloved relative, is hugely important.
Contrarian reactions to this kind of advice (which I won’t link to because anti-consent messaging is harmful garbage) fall back on the idea that parents need to teach their children good manners, and that kids need to listen to their parents. But no one is saying you can’t tell your child, “Go say hi to Grandpa,” or “Thank your aunt for her gift.” Physical intimacy isn’t the only way adults show love and gratitude to other adults, after all!
There are plenty of alternatives. Maybe your kid is more comfortable with high fives than hugs – there you go! You can always ask your child, “Do you want to hug Grandma?” This may require dealing with Grandma’s disappointment, but you can always just send her this article. A CNN article from 2015 offers the parental line, “I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.” (That article’s title, “I Don’t Own My Child’s Body”, is also a good reminder.)
There’s a line between polite social interaction and physical contact, and that’s an important lesson to teach early and often. The holidays are the perfect chance.