This scene plays out often in many family settings: the reluctant hugger or kisser is made to kiss his uncle, or aunt, or grandpa, or grandma, even though the child is clearly not comfortable with the gesture at that moment. Grandpa asks for a kiss, the kid refuses, the parent coaxes the kid to do it anyway. Or sometimes, the relative even “playfully” grabs the kid and gives him a kiss anyway, because after all, “we’re family.”
We justify forcing our sons to hug or kiss others with all types of reasons, but each and every one of those reasons is seriously misguided, especially if we are trying to teach our sons to respect the wishes of others when it comes to physical relationships.
In a culture where date rape is common, and where many perpetrators don’t believe what they have done is rape, it is more important than ever to teach our sons that no one should be forced to perform physical acts that they find uncomfortable or inappropriate.
When we force our sons to hug or kiss family members, we teach them from a very early age that anyone can get a kiss and a hug any time they want from anyone who’s smaller and weaker than they are. What message does this send about their future physical relationships with women?
One of the most important things we can do as parents, to teach our sons to have respectful physical relationships once they are older, is to teach them body autonomy, and that no always means no.
Body autonomy, in its simplest definition, is the idea that a person’s body is theirs and theirs alone, and that no one should touch it who does not have permission to do so.
I believe “no means no” does not require an explanation, but I’ll give you one anyway: if you try to hug, touch, or kiss a person, and the person says “no,” they mean “no.” They don’t mean “you can do it if you do it quickly,” “you can force yourself onto me because you’re family,” or “I’m playing hard to get.” “No” always means “no.” These messages become extremely important in the pre-teen and teenage years; however, they should be taught from a very young age (yes, even to toddlers).
When we force our young children to hug or kiss their family members, we are giving them mixed messages that will be difficult to sift through if they are ever in an abusive situation (whether they’re the victim or the perpetrator). If we teach them that their body is theirs and that no always means no, then it is not OK for us to force them to hug or kiss other people.
If a child is uncomfortable hugging or kissing anyone, it should be their right to refrain from doing so. And hopefully, boys who learn this at a young age and continue to partake in social situations where this message is emphasized, will turn into men who understand that no means no, even if it comes from a long-term partner or family member (especially if it comes from a long term partner or family member).
So, the next time a family member asks for a kiss or a hug, and your son doesn’t want to do it, don’t force him to do it. Don’t ask “are you sure?” or tell him to “just give so-and-so a little hug, it’s OK.” Because it’s not OK. Simply say, “He doesn’t want to do it.” And expect your family members to respect that. And if they don’t… show them this article.
Photo: Flickr/ Daniela Hartmann