With the holidays fast approaching, there is one aspect of the season that needs rethinking, according to Debbie Pauls, Program Manager for Transition Hope.
“Receiving a gift from a friend of the family or even a relative doesn’t automatically warrant a big hug,” said Pauls.
“And in the case where someone is demanding a hug, you need to be asking, what is this about? Is it something the child wants to do or is it something the adult in the situation wants? Showing affection should be a choice the child makes, not about the needs of the adult who wants a hug or kiss.”
Pauls was reacting to a recent reminder post by the Girls Scouts of America entitled, “She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug, Not Even at the Holidays,” in which the organization makes it clear that showing affection is a matter of consent, even for children.
“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” said Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald in a recent blog, “but the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, 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.”
Pauls agreed with that assessment and went on to explain that it’s an important message parents can give to children to reinforce the concept that showing affection is a matter of choice and not something children, or anyone, should ever be compelled to do. No one, she said, should be forced to do anything with their bodies that they do not feel comfortable in doing.
But it’s also a time for getting a message to adults.
“I’m not suggesting that we have to have a fear of physically connecting with children through a hug or kiss, but as the adults we need to be attuned to the child. We shouldn’t be demanding a hug from a child who is clearly uncomfortable with the idea. A fist bump or high five can give them a connection that falls within their comfort zone and respects them. As adults we need to be the ones to realize when a hug isn’t wanted, and respect that,” said Pauls.
“Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she “owes” another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life,” said Archibald.
Of course there are children who enjoy giving hugs to friends and family, and that’s fine too, said Pauls.
“The truth is that a spontaneous hug from a child is a wonderful thing and is profoundly more meaningful than a display of affection that the child has been compelled to give.”
And while the hugs being referenced by the Girl Guides are obviously non-sexual in nature, Pauls, who has worked with family and youth services for more than 10 years, is quick to acknowledge that the problem of child sexual abuse continues to harm children and that the offenders are often family members of friends of the family.
“We want to reinforce a culture where children know that they can set boundaries and should never be compelled to do something with their bodies with which they are uncomfortable. Hugs are a form of communication where we feel safe, and loved. We can’t force that at any age,” said Pauls.