In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet

Kids, consent, and hugging Grandma whether you want to or not

When it comes to kids and hugs, I fall strongly, strongly on the side of “only if they want to.” I’m a hugger under many circumstances, and the U.S. Deep South certainly encourages it. That said, I’m not an indiscriminate hugger, and even as an adult woman I resent being expected to submit to hugs when I don’t want to as a condition of friendliness, or because the hugger is old/”harmless”/etc.

I remember when a friend’s daughter got her first lesson about inappropriate touching at school. (This was an actual, sit-down-with-the-preschoolers talk, not a traumatizing object lesson, thank God.) Her mother told me the girl had been instructing pretty much everyone she’d seen for the past several days, “You can’t touch my body.” And, in fact, the next time she came into the room, she told me matter-of-factly that I can’t touch her body, which I’m perfectly fine with. And I loved it. Not just because it was adorable to see a four-year-old delivering that kind of solemn instruction, but that a) she’d gotten that information at all, and b) she had no compunctions about asserting her bodily autonomy with anyone, regardless of circumstances.

My great-grandmother (God rest her) detested being hugged. She was tiny and physically kind of fragile, plus she was in her eighties at that point and reasonably didn’t feel that she should really be required to do much of anything. Newcomers were instructed that instead of hugging, they would bow, “like businessmen in Japan.” Occasionally, her cane was brandished to reinforce the message. And everyone would have a chuckle about the eccentric old lady but honor her request.

So it would appear that you have to make it into your eighties before people start really respecting your authority over your own body (if even then). That’s a lot of time to be expected to put up with unwelcome touching.

The really frustrating thing to me is parents who won’t even let you respect their kids’ bodily integrity. The ones who respond to “It’s really okay, she doesn’t have to hug me” with “No, she has to learn to be polite.” No, seriously, I want no part in teaching your kid that she has to submit to being touched whether she wants to or not, and that allowing someone to put their hands on you is an issue of politeness. And at Everyday Feminism, James St. James outlines seven specific reasons why Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug Anyone. (Trigger warning at the link for sexual violence against children.)

1. It Teaches Your Child That They Don’t Have Control Over Their Own Bodies


2. It Implies That You (Or Adults in General) Have the Right to Touch Your Child How They Want, When They Want


3. It Tells Them That Relatives Can’t Be Abusers


4. It Disregards Your Child’s Comfort Zone


5. It Risks Dismantling Their Natural, Healthy Sense of Stranger Danger


6. It Ignores Any Important, Subtle Cues Your Child Is Trying to Tell You


7. It Sends the Message That Hugging (Or Physical Contact in General) Is the Only Way to Show Affection or Appreciation for Another Person

In short, forcing a kid to hug or kiss someone they don’t want to hug or kiss isn’t just annoying and disrespectful to them — it’s dangerous, teaching them that they don’t have control over their own bodies and that being touched against their will is something they’re expected to just accept if it’s a family member or friend. It teaches them to turn off the part of their brain that says, “This doesn’t feel right,” in favor of the part that says, “Adults I trust say I’m supposed to let this happen, because it’s okay.”

A blog post by Katie Hetter (lengthy, reasoned, and research-heavy) offers similar reasoning — that teaching that touching is a required element of politeness, and that it’s the only acceptable way of showing affection, and that reluctance to touch someone is a sign of rudeness and not a host of other concerns, endangers their ability to exert agency when the situation isn’t as simple as greeting Grandma. And she points out that there are plenty of ways for a kid to politely acknowledge a person’s arrival or departure and demonstrate respect with a handshake or even no physical contact at all.

My friend’s daughter was, particularly when she was little, extremely shy and physically withdrawn around new people, and the first time she ran up to me and gave me a hug was kind of momentous — because she was doing it voluntarily and exuberantly, and because she’d become comfortable enough around me that she wanted to do it. But even if she’d never done it, I wouldn’t have taken it personally, because sometimes a person just doesn’t want to hug you. If her mother (who was very attentive and aware of her daughter’s emotional state) wasn’t concerned, I wasn’t concerned. It was exciting enough to get the occasional high-five from her. Maybe we would have even worked our way up to bowing.

13 thoughts on Kids, consent, and hugging Grandma whether you want to or not

  1. I like this. One other thing I’d highlight is that it can teach children that they have to accept (rather than choose to experience) discomfort in favor of someone’s mild pleasure.

  2. Sometimes I read something here and think “Am I in an alternate dimension?”.
    Being raised in a house where hugging and kissing was seen as sinful…

  3. I like all of this except:

    5. It Risks Dismantling Their Natural, Healthy Sense of Stranger Danger

    We should banish the phrase ‘Stranger Danger’ from our national vocabulary. No program has done more to worsen the problem of sexual abuse, kidnapping, and violence against children.

    1. The author of the article goes on to clarify, on the topic:

      I’m actually not a fan of the term “stranger danger” since it can accidentally imply that all strangers are bad and all non-strangers are good, but I’m going with it since it’s a term I’m confident most people are familiar with. But as a refresher, “stranger danger” is pretty much when your brain goes, “Uhh… I don’t want that person near me.”

      I just wanted to point that out, because the phrase annoyed me as well, but in the interest of being fair, it isn’t being used in the traditional sense, here.

      1. Yep, I saw that (though thanks for providing context), I just didn’t buy it as a good reason to keep the phrase. I’d make the (perhaps extreme) case that it has such a major place in our psyche, due to generations of intense educational programs/TV specials/PSA, that there’s no way to use it casually without reinforcing the genuinely horrific problems it leads to.

        I mean, it’s not even the biggest problem, but there are a heartbreaking number of cases where kids are kidnapped by relatives and abused (or just lost in the woods/city/desert), and nevertheless avoid potential rescuers because they’re convinced strangers will do far worse things to them.

  4. I think that this is completely bogus. You are saying that doing something that is used as a sign of respect should be banished just because you view it as “Rape-Culture” as your tags suggest? Since when is hugging an elder a bad thing? Japan is a completely different culture with different morals. Using them as an example is horrid because of their lack of age-of-consent and approval of child pornography. Hell, most men there even support what you consider “rape-culture.” I’d be willing to give you many example videos to prove that they support “rape-culture”, but you’d be “triggered.” Modern day feminism is a joke.

    1. Point out where, in the post, I proposed that we banish all hugging of elders, or where I proposed instituting Japanese cultural practices instead, and then we can discuss the jokiness of modern feminism.

    2. What they said. Also re: Japan’s “lack of age-of-consent and approval of child pornography”, completely false.

    3. Using them as an example is horrid because of their lack of age-of-consent and approval of child pornography.

      It’s true that Japan’s cultural issues surrounding sex and sexuality are not exactly the same as the US’s, but they’re not worse; they just take culturally-specific forms. And your two examples are largely bullshit.

    4. “Don’t force kids into hugging/kissing people they don’t want to hug or kiss” = “No hugging old people EVER.”

      Uh huh.

  5. This is a really important thing to teach kids. No adult should ever make kids feel that they don’t deserve to express their needs and boundaries, and that’s how forced hugs make lots of kids feel. I also think that forced hugs can be extra difficult for autistic kids, many of whom have strict boundaries WRT physical contact and often don’t know how to express those boundaries to others.

    That was one of the reasons I had difficulty objecting to being hugged against my will as a kid – instead of realizing that it was ok to have personal boundaries, I just blamed myself for being rude and socially inept. Even today I have a lot of difficulty in expressing needs and boundaries in general (and still go on with the self-blame). And while my autism does contribute to that, I would have a lot less difficulty if my boundaries weren’t constantly stepped on as a kid.

Comments are currently closed.