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?
I hate cooking. I really do (and I rarely use the word hate). But it really fits here. For me, cooking represents the idea that women are expected to work constantly and are expected to give more than we receive. It's the unstated but quite engrained cultural expectation that we should love serving others, even if it's not reciprocated that drives me nuts. It's the fact that ever since I can remember, the kitchen is mostly devoid of men.
Growing up, during Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was the women who rushed around and cooked all day, the women who prepped the table, and even the women who cleaned up the mess.
And yet, I've found myself perpetuating these behaviors as well. It's true that we love our families so much that it brings joy to see our loved ones together enjoying delicious food, even if the women of the family exhaust themselves in the process. As a mother, I've often had to check myself of these self-sacrificing and martyr-like ways. There were a few years that I unconsciously overloaded myself overzealously preparing food for a large gathering without asking my husband for help--he would have been equally thrilled if we did take out. To his credit, there were a few years when he did all of the overzealous prep without asking me for help too. And my father-in-law must have some inkling of our strivings as this Thanksgiving he surprised us by pre-ordering the entire Thanksgiving feast as take out.
But here's the thing: it's not just on holidays and special events where we work so much harder than the men--we do it everyday. In fact, about 41 percent of mothers earn the majority of their family's income while another 23 percent of mothers are co–breadwinners, contributing at leased a quarter of the family's earnings.1 These numbers are dramatically higher in Hispanic and African-American families where 27% of Latino children and 51% of African-American children are being raised by a single mother.2
Despite the fact that we are working outside the home, we are also working much more in the home as well--and doing so alone. In heterosexual homes, women do approximately 80% more housework and cooking than the men. I met a mother recently who wakes at 5:00am everyday to make her children's lunches, clean the house, and prepare dinner for later that evening. Her husband sleeps until 7:00am. I asked her why her husband gets to sleep in until 7:00am while she has to wake up in the dark, "I have to make the lunches and dinner," she repeated as if I didn't hear her the first time. “Yes, but, can't he help you?” I insisted. "Oh, that's just the way it is. I'm not sure he would even know how to make the lunches and it's not worth the stress." This is not an unusual scenario.
It’s not that men are a**holes, it's that they grew up with their mothers doing all of the housework and it's all they know. Then they grow up and their wives continue to do the housework. And it's not that the women want to be martyrs either, it's that it's what they have been programed to do since they ate their first meal (that their mother made--by herself). We are all doing our best to figure out gender roles and marriage. Who does what and how? It can be confusing for sure. But over time, repeating traditional gender roles in the home with non-traditional gender roles at work sends a message: that women's time is worth less, that men have more of a right to relax and take a break, and that women's needs come last.
My husband and I have been together for 23 years and we are still deeply in love. When people ask how we manage to keep the spark alive, we often admit to hiring a housekeeper. Instead of squabbling over whose turn it is to clean the toilet, in college, we paid $30 a week to have someone come in and do it for us. Not that we were rich…we made this happen when I was paying $350/month for a basement apartment where water seeped in through the walls when it rained. For those who would prefer to spend their money on upgrading their rental instead of a housekeeper, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sharing housework. It's the least sexy job. And believe me, contrary to popular myth, women are not inherently cleaner or more organized, it's simply due to constant societal pressure. Plus, there are immense benefits to sharing housework. When husbands do more housework, couples are happier, wives are less depressed, and marital conflicts decrease.
So, I ask you to make the unconscious conscious: what message are you sending to your children by segregating the cooking and housework according to gender? More importantly: what message are you sending to yourself? I say it’s time we liberate ourselves of expectations and dive into a life of true equality, even if it does mean take-out on Thanksgiving and a toilet no one cleans—we’ll find our way.
1 Sarah Jane Glynn, Breadwinning Mothers: Then and Now, Center for American Progress (June 2014), 6. In 2012, 40.9 percent of mothers were sole primary breadwinners for their families and another 22.4 percent were co-breadwinners."
2 Child Trends Data Bank, Family Structure: Indicators on Children and Youth, (March 2015),4,http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/59_Family_Structure.pdf.
3 Sharon Meers and Joanna Streber, Getting to 50/50: How working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All (New York: Bantam Books, 2009).
Meet Megan, one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens and included on Huffington Post’s list of 14 Most Fearless Teens. In 2015, Megan was named one of the 24 Millennials to Watch by Yahoo. She has been featured in countless media outlets including The TODAY Show, The New York Times, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes Magazine, Seventeen and Teen Vogue among others. In addition to serving as an active company founder, Megan serves as a member of the first-ever Barbie Global Advisory Board and has deferred her freshman year at Middlebury College to continue as CEO of Yellowberry.
When she was 17-years-old she took her younger sister shopping to buy her very first bras. We scoured the mall to find a product that she was excited about, but ended up being completely appalled at all of the bra options that were not only available for her little sister, but also marketed to her and girls her age. Padding, push-up features and underwire galore… She could not believe that these were the bras that girls were supposed to wear!
She explains: "I saw something wrong with that entire experience. In fact, it was a day that I could not stop thinking about. Why wasn’t there just a cute, colorful and comfortable bra for Mary Margaret to fit her and her body, not the body that she was “supposed” to have? The answer was that there simply wasn’t one. That is when I realized that if no one else was going to make bras specifically for girls, then I was going to find a way to do it myself. Armed with my own hand-drawn pattern on my dad’s yellow legal pad and the small savings I had earned from my summer job bussing tables, I moved forward with this idea. As a junior in high school in 2014, I founded my company, Yellowberry to change the bra industry for girls." Megan Grassell
Today, Yellowberry offers bras, underwear, lounge and athletic-inspired apparel exclusively for girls with an extra boost of confidence to encourage them to dream big and know they have the support to do anything in the world.
Check it out:
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