When we ask our daughter to hug or kiss someone that she is not entirely comfortable hugging or kissing, we unconsciously teach her to submit her body against her will which may lead to increased vulnerability to sexual predators. Sorry to scare you, but it is true! Yet, this act is so common that you’d be hard-pressed even in the most progressive families to find parents who do not force their children to be held, hugged or kissed unwillingly, mostly by innocent relatives who mean no harm, but still, unwillingly.
I was one of those parents when I first became a mother. I was nervous that my friends and relatives would get their feelings hurt if I didn't let them hold my daughter’s little newborn body. She would cling to me and I would pry her little fingers off to pass her off to them. Which wouldn’t go well. I soon learned that if she were asleep she wouldn’t notice and I could use the opportunity to stretch or go to the bathroom (oh the luxury!). But soon something clicked in me with my years of treating women who were sexually assaulted and I realized I was offering her body without consent.
Others in the field agree; "When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend's feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them," said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention. Ursula Wagner, a mental health clinician with the FamilyWorks program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago agrees, “forcing children to touch people when they don't want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people known to the children they abuse. None of the child victims of sexual abuse or assault she's counseled was attacked by strangers, she said.
Indeed, most sexual abusers are people who the child knows and not anything like the creepy predator tempting kids into his van with candy. Research tells us that 1 in 5 girls are the victims of child sexual abuse. When we allow our daughters to have a choice in who they want to hug, kiss or be held by, it empowers them to know it is their right to decide and practice that self-assertion.
But just as important as protecting them from unwanted touch, we want our daughters to know that they reserve the right to make their own decisions about their bodies, yes, even as babies. We want her to learn that no one has a right to put their hands on her body without her agreeing. However, we teach our daughters exactly the opposite when we tell them to hug relatives, to kiss them and to let them hold them. This happens before our daughters can even speak. As infants, we often pass their little bodies to relatives or grandparents so they can hold them. While this action is seemingly innocent, it sets the message that even though they are a little nervous or even scared, that their job is to please others by letting them hold or touch them. They may wonder, “Why is my mommy or daddy giving me to that person who I am not comfortable with?”
I witnessed this yesterday. I hadn’t seen a friend for many months and her little 3 month-old newborn was now a little 9 month-old baby. Her name was Evelyn and she was cute in every possible way, with her soft and squishy little face and hands, her big eyes and her sweet smile. She was smiling at me so I asked to hold her. Her mother started pulling her baby away from her body to bring her to me and I could see her happy little face become scared and confused. “It’s ok, Evelyn,” her mother pressed, “Go to Jennifer.” Evelyn clung tighter and I could see the mother’s concern that I would get my feelings hurt and I could see Evelyn go from feeling safe and smiling at me to feeling threatened and unsure if her mom would protect her. After all, I was a stranger to her and I was asking to hold her entire body in my arms. I immediately told her mother that I didn’t want to hold her if she wasn’t comfortable and I could see the relief in her face. After a few minutes Evelin started smiling at me again feeling safe in her mother’s arms.
Can you imagine if we did to adults what we do to babies and children? It’s no wonder that by the time our daughters start to date that they become confused and often submit their bodies to be liked. I remember when I was growing up, there was talk of girls that “put out” and girls that didn’t “put out.” The girls that “put out” often had more interest than the girls that didn’t. Some of them were my friends and explained to me that being sexual is “a part of being someone’s girlfriend.” As you can imagine, not much has changed today and baby girls, toddler girls, young girls and teens are expected to let others hold them, hug them, kiss them and later to have sexual relations with them in order to please others. The message is passed unconsciously and it’s embedded in our culture.
What we can do to change this is to consider consent for girls and women of all ages. If our daughter doesn’t want to give grandpa or grandma a hug, don’t ask her to. If everyone is hugging goodbye and your daughter backs away, don’t ask her to hug goodbye. There is a social pressure to please others and to use children to please. It’s time to let go of this expectation and use the idea of consent for women of all ages from newborn to elderly women. If you are not sure by her body language if she wants to be held, hugged, or kissed, then you can ask her privately. If she says no, don’t ask her again and don’t force her. Just like we want our high school and college aged daughters to understand : “no means no” we can start teaching them at birth.
Do you agree? What are your thoughts?
Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and executive director of Roots & Wings Institute for Personal Growth and Family Excellence. In addition, she keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators and clinicians. Dr. Johnston-Jones lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and two children whom she adores.
Dr. Jennifer Jones, renowned psychologist, shares her thoughts, favorite articles, and favorite resources here