Why children need to feel the pinch

From forcing kisses on relatives to hand-holding, kids may be losing their liberties

Why children need to feel the pinch

IG Cheese Photo/Corbis

You’ve all been there: unruly, unclean and narcissistic, yet for some reason, irresistible to everyone in your path. You are four years old at a family function. A stranger approaches. She looks and smells like leather. She has whiskers. She wants a kiss. You duck away, look to your parents for support. Not only do they ignore your calls for help, they are, in fact, aiding and abetting this sadistic ritual: “Give your auntie a kiss, sweetie,” they plead. “It will mean so much to her.” You abstain, they get stern and finally, defeated, you give in and let the whiskers brush your chin as the stranger plants a wet one on your tiny grimace.

Being forced to kiss and hug distant relatives—endure cheek-pinching from old people you’ve never met—is a universal annoyance, an age-old tradition most of us have experienced first-hand. But its days may be numbered. Support for a new parenting trend is on the rise, a trend defined not by the affection kids crave, but by the affection they detest. Irene van der Zande, founder of Kidpower International—a non-profit organization devoted to child safety (she founded Kidpower in 1985 after a man threatened to kidnap her children)—believes that forcing kids to show affection is potentially dangerous. “When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them,” writes van der Zande, “because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them. This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behaviour and kids enduring bullying because everyone is having fun.” Shirin Purnell, a Virginia parenting blogger who subcribes to this belief—she wrote about it last week on her blog, On the Fence—believes that even suggesting to your child that a relative might enjoy a hug or kiss is “emotional manipulation.”

At the risk of appearing emotionally manipulative, allow me to demur. Is the unspontaneous familial embrace always a catalyst for low self-esteem in the future? Surely a pity kiss for Aunt Marjorie when you’re 6 is a long way off from pity sex with a manipulative college boyfriend when you’re 21. And isn’t it possible for parents to teach their children the difference between inappropriate touching and touching that is—while  annoying—not in any way predatory?

To her credit, van der Zande agrees that it’s possible—even likely—that formidable noodgery will not escalate into actual child abuse. But the anti-forced-affection philosophy, she says, is about risk prevention. Which is to say, it is about fear: the fear that someone or something could inflict harm upon your child, or cause your child to be more susceptible to harm down the road, somewhere, no matter how remote or vague the threat may be. In other words, it’s not so much about fear as it is about misplaced paranoia, the kind Barry Glassner codified in his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. To Glassner’s list of wrong things, which include crime, drugs and mutant microbes, we can now add tickle monsters.

“It’s a scary world out there, and if you are teaching your children that they have to respect all adults, that’s a problem,” parenting blogger Adam Dolgin told me last week (he runs the popular website, fodder4fathers.com). “In this day and age, you have to be skeptical of everyone,” he says. Dolgin makes perfect sense, until you consider the possibility that, while learning to be skeptical of everyone might be a valuable lesson for someone purchasing a used car, it’s probably less so for a child.

I am not advocating that kids be forced to kiss unpleasant relatives. Or smelly ones. Dolgin himself has a nephew who refuses to hug one of his grandfathers; they shake hands instead, a laudable compromise. But to portend doom at every unsolicited familial embrace is a little over the top.

Toronto parenting writer and blogger Samantha Kemp-Jackson agrees. She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with coaxing kids to show affection to relatives (she says opposition to it is “just another vestige of helicopter parenting”). But she admits to harbouring some excessive safety fears herself. “My parents used to say, ‘Go out and play and come back at dinnertime.’ But I don’t let my daughter walk to school and it’s three blocks away. I realize on an intellectual level this is silly, but on some level, I have bought into the fact that the world is a much more scary place.”

That’s the irony—and hypocrisy—of new-age parenting as it pertains to the grabby grandparent dilemma. The kids given the tools to stand up for themselves are often the most sheltered. Parents believe they’re doing the progressive thing, giving their children the freedom to hug and kiss as they please—to offend leathery aunts at will. But is this the liberty kids want, or need, most? Their free time is structured; they can’t walk to school without an adult; and, according to a recent U.K. study, they’re statistically prone to depression because they’re no longer allowed to explore nature unsupervised. They may have the freedom to withhold kisses from nana, but they can’t even leave their own backyards. The freedom to roam has been replaced with the freedom of dissent—which is essentially the freedom to keep yourself out of harm’s way. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, sure. But for kids today, it may be another word for nothing left to do.

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com


Why children need to feel the pinch

  1. Emma Teitel is missing an essential point about what Kidpower was teaching: it is powerful to have parents and relatives support the children setting boundaries for touch and affection. It’s not saying that grandma is necessarily doing anything wrong by wanting a kiss, but it is important to support kids’ choices. If kids can’t be supported in that while parents are present, how can we expect them to do so when they are alone with another adult?

  2. I think that it’s more about making sure there’s a consistant message. If we teach our kids that ‘no means no’ with regard to their bodies and unwanted affection, then it should work no matter who they are saying no to. The time for a discussion about why a leathery aunt may deserve a hug should not be while it’s being forced on the child.
    Sadly, our family is dealing with the aftermath of child sexual assault by a member of the family that used the escillation of acceptable affection in the grooming process. Although obviously this is NOT a risk with even most cases of an aunt or grandpa that wants a hug, kids need to know they can say they don’t want to and have the knowledge that they will be listened to and supported.
    If not, what confidence do they have that if something is happening that they are uncomfortable with that they will be listened to?

    • You are right, Joyce. Every mother has to tell her children that NO ONE is allowed to touch them in their “private places”. That NO ONE includes even their dad and mom when they aren’t in diapers anymore. Parents and children also need a secret “safe word” that no one else knows, not even grandpa and grandma. The child knows that if someone comes to pick them up, they have to know the secret “safe word” or the child doesn’t go with them because mom and dad haven’t sent them. Hugging an “old leathery aunt” is okay when your mom and dad are there with you. It is safe. If you don’t feel safe when they aren’t there, don’t do it.

  3. Tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Everyone’s so extreme, dogmatic and cultish in their thinking nowadays.

  4. Kidpower sounds great, after all – who wants to abuse children. So, of course everyone can agree that programs that try to stop abuse probably have good intentions.

    But look past the words, look into their actions and see a different picture. Children are not supposed to be social experiments, they are people in their own right. Not adults, but people. Submitting them to social experiments is completely and utterly wrong and is generally more about the career of the adults involved rather than the actual well-being of the children.

  5. Paranoia combined with political correctness combined with lack of logic and coherent thought. The problem with child rearing is that we are raising a generation of self-absorbed, coddled, narcissistic kids who think the world owes them every thing and they owe nothing in return. Part of maturity is that you have to do things you don’t want to do because it is part of the social compact and the social ties that bind. Over-dramatizing a few seconds of nuisance that you have to put up with when you are young and cute to being a precursor to a terrible calamity many decades in the future is going to do the harm to the kid.
    This is just reinforcing the privileged whiny that is one of the really annoying things about this latest group of kids.

  6. Emma, you have hit the nail on the head with this article. No matter how many “leathery old aunts” that get offended, child molesters won’t pack up and quit. They are master manipulators. They are charming in the extreme and they are very, very patient. Why do parents teach their children to swim rather than just avoid water? They have to do the same with coping in the world. My daughter walked home from school. My hairdresser asked it if she wanted a ride. My daughter said she was not allowed to accept one. We discussed the issues. That you don’t get in the car with anyone I didn’t send to pick you up. If I had sent them, they would know our “safe word”. We also discussed that no one touches your private areas on your body but you. If anyone does, come to your mother. We discussed that adults never ask children for help with directions, finding a lost puppy or anything else so run if one does. When the time came, she did the right thing. Meanwhile, she let the leathery aunts have a smooch.

  7. Or you could leave it up to the kid. Drop the hint that a kiss for Grandma-the-swamphag might guarentee you something at Christmas (assuming you’re not a complete bore ever-maundering on about your stylish atheism). It’s absence, on the other hand…

    Lay your money on native simian avarice. Plus, the kid learns why faking sincerity is the sure path to personal gain. It’s as valuable a lesson as you’ll ever give him.

    Nicely-wrought (even droll in places) piece from Emma today.

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