This article was originally published in 2015.
My kids have reached an age that necessitates difficult conversations about how not every touch from an adult or a “friend” is always innocent. They don’t understand how someone with unkind intentions could approach with a smile and a kiss, and that it only takes one moment for physical affection to cross the line into impropriety.
It is because they can’t wrap their minds around it that I have to teach them the difference between “safe” and “unsafe”. I have to teach them to trust their gut when they feel something they can’t put into words – and I have to be willing to trust it, too.
And that means no matter who you are, my kids don’t have to give you a hug or kiss if they don’t want to.
We expect our children to behave well and put on a happy face, because we only see Great Aunt Mildred once a year. Cousins and siblings bring home new boyfriends/girlfriends from college – old family friends drop by. We want our loved ones to have a good impression of us and the job we’re going as parents. But for kids, a steady stream of new or unfamiliar faces can be intimidating! Children should not be forced to give or receive physical affection if they are not comfortable with it. What’s at stake is so much more serious than being labeled “rude” or Aunt Mildred’s hurt feelings over being rejected by a 2-year-old.
Why? Because 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.*
Sadly, 30% of abusers are family members – unless the child is under the age of six. Then that number jumps to 50%. For those same children under the age of six, 43% of their abusers are juveniles – older, more powerful children. And 84% of abuse incidents take place in a residence – most typically that of the child or the abuser.
While female children are more likely to be victimized (1 in 5) than boys (1 in 20), it happens to both sexes.** (Abuse is very difficult to measure accurately & different agencies report different number. The sources for statistics used in this post are noted at the bottom of the page.)
In my own life, I recall more than one hug from a family friend or co-worker of my parents that pulled me in too close and lasted too long. I learned to push back, but always with a smile. As a college student I once declined, as politely as I could, a dinner invitation from my boss – a man 5 years older than myself. A few weeks later, when we were the only two left in the store one evening, he cornered me in the stock room and tried to kiss me, because he “could tell [I] hadn’t really meant ‘no'”. I pushed past him, grabbed my keys, and ran out.
I certainly don’t consider my own experiences “abuse”, but as an adult I now see a flaw in the way I was processing other people’s actions:
Why did I feel like I was the one at fault? Why was I afraid my actions had been “rude”?
Boys and girls alike need to know they have control over who touches them and how. They need to know they don’t have to give or receive physical affection in order to spare someone’s feelings or maintain an air of “politeness”. And it’s not because Great Aunt Mildred may secretly be a sexual predator!
If they feel the pressure to smile, “be polite”, and allow themselves to be hugged and kissed when their parents are there watching, they will most certainly feel that pressure when their parents are not present.
Being polite and obedient are good things – but there is a line that many children are forced to cross in the name of “being a good girl/boy”. We must protect our children from those who seek to take advantage of them – and we must teach our children that physical contact is not the ONLY way to show love.
This feels overwhelming. Where do I start?
- Talking about “private parts” and who is allowed to touch them under certain circumstances (mom & dad when bathing, perhaps their doctor if there is a health concern, etc.) is good. Teaching kids to use proper anatomical language is better – it helps to remove the shame from sexuality and their bodies. There is also evidence that it deters potential abusers, who prefer to use words like “cupcake” or “flower” to make their behavior seem more innocent than it is.
- The “Bathing Suit Rule” (no one can touch the areas covered by your bathing suit) is good. Teaching kids “Safe” vs. “Unsafe” is better. The mouth, thighs, and hands are not covered by the bathing suit and can be used in a number of inappropriate ways – try to keep in mind that an abuser will justify and use technicalities to confuse a child.
- Giving them guidelines is good. Leading by example is better. Teaching our kids that their “no” has a right to be heard is important – but we must teach them to honor someone else’s “no”, too! When we are playing, tickling or snuggling and one of my kids asks to stop, we stop immediately. Not only does this model for them how to respond to a request, but it teaches them the way someone else should react when they ask not to be touched. Predators will not groom kids who speak up and are quick to sound the alarm – make sure your kids know YOU WILL LISTEN.
And when in front of your entire extended family, little Johnny refuses to give sweet Aunt Mildred a hug or kiss? Stay calm. Reaffirm for your child in front of others that their choice is OK and that they have the right to have their “no” be heard. Don’t allow them to be shamed or guilted into acquiescing – keep the Big Picture in mind. Then offer an alternative:
- My 2-year-old likes to wave, give high fives or a “thumbs up”
- My 5-year-old enjoys blowing kisses, a curtsy, or singing special (original) songs
- They can say “I love you” if they want, or they can come up with their own verbal affirmation
- Allow them to do nothing, offer your own hugs, and be on your way
*Statistics cited via D2L.org
** Statistics cited via The National Center for Victims of Crime
For more resources on starting difficult conversations with your kids, click here.
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