I’ve worked in mental health long enough to know that sexual abuse is more common than the average American might think. According to one source, 1 in 20 boys and 1 in 5 girls will be the victim of child sex abuse, though experts suggest this number for boys is low since boys are often less likely to disclose abuse. The factors which coalesce in cases of sexual abuse are complex, but I think we can all agree that we want to prevent our children from becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of sexual violence. We can’t eradicate the messages that society will send to our children about how men and women should behave and be treated, but there is something powerful and simple that we can do. We can all respect our children's right to consent.
If my son learns nothing else from me, I hope he always understands the importance of consent. At home we use vocabulary which puts him in charge of, and in tune with, his body. He’s often been known to say, “I’m listening to my body, and it says I need to eat." When he was a baby, I tried to prepare him each time I would pick him up, move him, or change his diaper. From day one, I wanted him to understand the importance of physical boundaries.
Recently I witnessed an interesting interaction between my father-in-law and my four year old. My son was asking my father-in-law to please refrain from tickling him, but my father-in-law is hard of hearing and the room was loud. Finally my son addressed the room, "Please be quiet, I have something important to say!" He once again turned to my father-in-law and said, "why do you tickle me when I don't like it? Please stop." My father-in-law, clearly flabbergasted, assured my son that he wouldn't tickle him again. I couldn't have been more proud. It's my job to ensure that my son understands that he can make decisions about what happens to his body, and I take that responsibility seriously.
It may seem obvious to emphasize the importance of consent, but in small ways we can subtly yet profoundly undermine our children’s basic control over their bodies.
Some of us are respectful of our children’s boundaries, but we let them literally run all over us. Modeling consent is valuable because it teaches our children how to set respectful, firm limits with others. If they’ve never seen boundaries being set, they won’t feel confident in their own ability to say “no.” Furthermore, teaching our kids to respect others is as important as empowering them. I want my son to learn that I get to choose how he touches me. If he grabs me roughly, I will gently remove his hands and say, “I’m in charge of my body, and I choose not to have a touch that hurts me.” My hope is that he will internalize this message and feel compelled to automatically set and accept physical limits.
Using Corporal Punishment
Spanking reduces connection, and it doesn’t improve behaviors. Moreover, it disregards our children’s boundaries since no child willingly consents to being spanked. If we’re attempting to instill the value of respect in our children while simultaneously violating their consent through physical punishment, our children are likely to be confused by these mixed messages. As is often the case, our actions will speak louder than our words.
Many of us have likely encouraged our young child to hug grandma goodbye. This gesture could mean a lot to an extended family member and seems fairly innocuous. However, in this small way we strip our children of the power of consent. I would never go to dinner with a group of people and pressure my husband to hug them all goodbye. I respect his boundaries. Yet we don't always think to show our children this same level of respect.
Forcing children into physical contact teaches them that adults are responsible for choosing how and when they will be touched. This may seem harmless when it’s a trusted family member, but a sense of control and bodily awareness is undermined regardless of the closeness of the relative. This lack of control can generalize to relationships with other adults who may not be trustworthy. Furthermore, children, and adults for that matter, can't always accurately judge who is safe to trust and who should be avoided. If they've been empowered to set their own limits, our children are far more likely to report to us any instance in which their boundaries are not being respected.
Recently I came across a comment on an article on a similar topic:
"At 4 years old, my son decided he didn't want to hug his 94-year-old grandma when we visited with her at the nursing home. She said it was OK and nodded in understanding, but we couldn't help but see in her eyes that it hurt her feelings. When it came time to tuck our son in that night, my husband and I decided against hugging and kissing him. Why? Because he needed to learn compassion ... the impact of his actions on others. We wanted for him to understand how grandma felt when he didn't want to hug her. I can now say 'remember how it felt?' and he understands. Part of my job as a parent is to teach him what he needs to know to grow into a good, kind, caring, compassionate person.”
I suspect this story is fraught with emotion for this mother. She likely was balancing the expectation of her young son with her own feelings for an aging family member. This is a difficult position for one to find herself, and I understand her desire to teach her son how his grandmother may have felt. Here’s the thing about being the adult, however: sometimes kids say or do things that other adults wouldn’t do. They may even hurt our feelings. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean it’s their fault. We can’t hold them to the same social standards as adults. I can't imagine this child declined to hug his grandmother out of spite or with a single shred of malice. It’s unfortunate that this grandmother’s feelings were hurt, but the message that children must acquiesce to the physical demands of others to avoid hurt feelings places the needs of others above what feels comfortable to our children.
This situation is a great example of how an alternative to a hug is beneficial. My son doesn’t like hugging most people, but when I ask if he feels comfortable giving a high five or a gentle fist bump, he’s usually pretty excited to have options. After the fact, this child could have made his grandma a card or painted her a picture. The point is, there are other ways to communicate love.
While these parents likely had good intentions, their strategy for teaching empathy seems a bit misguided. Withholding affection to teach a child a lesson strikes me as manipulative, and I doubt it has ever been effective. He may hug his grandmother during the next visit, but I doubt it will be from a genuine desire. There is an undeniable power differential between parents and children, and comparing the unique influence a parent holds over a child with his choice not to hug his grandmother is unfair. Most likely the child in this scenario felt intimidated by the atmosphere of the nursing home and his grandmother’s declining health. Shaming him wouldn’t change that. I’ve yet to see a study which suggests that shame produces “kind, caring, compassionate” children.
If you’re expecting a hug from my son, you’ll probably be disappointed. He has grown confident in his right to say no to unwanted touch. Likewise, he is learning that each person has an inherent right to set their own physical limits. He doesn't offer physical affection based on obligation, but this makes his authentic expression of affection so much sweeter.