Is It Wrong to Make Your Kid Hug a Relative?
Filed under: Opinions
"Child Predators Love Polite Kids." That's the title of this tip sheet for parents, and it's also something you hear a lot: Don't make your kid kiss grandma, or hug Uncle Fester, because when you do the child gets the message, "I must submit to any repulsive physical activity any adult asks me to do."
This common wisdom turns out to be bunk.
Are the kids forced to kiss relatives really more likely to end up abused? "There's no evidence about this," says Prof. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Finkelhor adds that he does feel sorry sometimes for the way kids are required to be affectionate. It's not fun to kiss someone who feels or smells funny. I agree! Heck, I'm a grownup and I still don't like kissing some of my relatives -- the ones who leave big red lipstick smears. But I submit now as I did when I was a youngster, because it's polite. And you can be polite without turning into predator putty.
The "Child Predators Love Polite Kids" author, Pattie Fitzgerald, writes that when made to kiss icky relatives, the child gets the message, "Don't trust your own instincts. You have to obey an adult." But Kiki Weingarten, a parenting coach and former New York City public school teacher, says that message comes in context: "She's your grandmother and the family rule is: We kiss grandma. I'm not talking about having children not trust their instincts. This is about teaching respect."
Amy Baxter, an Atlanta doctor who did her fellowship in child maltreatment and is CEO of Buzzy4shots.com, also has not seen any link between kids who reluctantly kiss their relatives and kids who end up abused. "I think children are very savvy about what's appropriate and what isn't."
Moreover, all the experts agree that if a child seems not just unenthusiastic, but actually distraught at the prospect of kissing or hugging a particular someone, it is our job, as parents, to try to find out why. (Once, of course, that particular someone is gone.) "Use open-ended questions," says Baxter. Questions like, "Can you tell me why you feel this way?" Not, "Did Uncle Peter do something?!"
The best way to help kids avoid abuse, says Finkelhor, is to teach them, starting as young as age 3 or 4, about good touch/bad touch. Tell them there are "private parts" no adult should touch, and that if someone wants to do that to them, they can say, "No."
We should also teach our kids that they can talk to us about this, even if the other person said not to, and that we won't be mad! Not at all! That way we remove the guilt, which could be a big barrier.
The pop psych notion that a perfunctory hug can lead to a life of victimization is another way to make parents scared of something that didn't used to be such a big deal. Guess what?
It's not such a big deal.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.