If the ever-growing amount of public apologies and job resignations are anything to go by, it would appear as though social interaction is a more complex process than ever before.
Public outrage and extreme viewpoints regarding the most basic language and actions have created an atmosphere that has big companies and governments scrambling to do everything in their power not to offend anyone, and those in the business of training and education are seizing their chance to try and reshape what ‘normal’ should be.
The issue of consent has seen a boom in terms of education recently, as children in kindergarten are beginning to receive education regarding body-autonomy in an effort to thwart the prevalence of child sexual abuse.
And one of the examples currently being used to introduce the idea of consent is teaching children that they have the right to refuse a hug or a kiss from their grandparents.
While nobody could possibly argue that teaching children about consent is a bad thing, using grandparents as an example within education that is meant to help prevent the sexual abuse of children has definitely raised some eyebrows.
Childhood educator and manager of HUSHeducation, Margie Buttris, spoke with HelloCare and shared her thoughts regarding the issue of consent, and the divisiveness of using grandparents as an example for this issue.
“If a child can speak, or react in a way that their message is clear (smiling, leaning in or pulling away, leaning back, wiggling out of someone’s grasp), yes, I do believe that everyone – grandparents included – should ask if it’s OK to hug or kiss a grandchild/child,” said Buttris.
“A simple, ‘Do you want to give granny a hug?’, ‘Is it ok if I ask for a kiss?’ or ‘How do you want to say bye for today?’ are all easy, respectful ways to ask for consent or permission.”
While many have been quick to dismiss the idea of grandparents requiring consent as political correctness gone mad, sadly, the main perpetrators of sexual abuse against children are not the strangers that people warn their children about. Statistics show that the majority of sexual abuse experienced by children is committed by someone in the family.
In saying that, the question of whether placing a grandparent in this conversation could negatively affect a child’s perception of them is surely a valid one.
When asked if she felt that if teaching a child that they did not have to accept a kiss or hug from a grandparent may suggest that a grandparent may have sinister motives, Buttris was adamant in her response.
“Absolutely not! Children need clear and simple rules. They also have the right to autonomy just as adults do,” she said.
“It’s difficult to say that ‘these’ people [and how do you even decide whom is on the list?] can hug or kiss you whenever they want, even if you don’t feel like it or would prefer to greet them in another way – but other people can’t touch you without your permission.”
Buttris continued, “Have a simple across the board rule – no-one can touch your body [*unless it’s a helping or healing touch with a trusted adult present] without your permission. It’s as easy to say, ‘Do you feel like a hug?’ as it is to say, ‘Give me a hug.’
“Grandparents are not being singled out or being portrayed as scary or sinister – the rules apply to everyone. I honestly believe that grandchildren will feel safer, more relaxed and more excited to be with or seeing their grandparents when they know their feelings will be acknowledged and respected. It builds trust and connection.”
Having one simple rule across the board may help in terms of making the concept of consent easier for children to understand, but having such a ‘black and white’ approach to something as nuanced consenting-affection is bound to cause friction in some cases.
Children who look unhappy may actually be looking for a hug or a kiss to feel better about themselves, and there have been grandparents on social media that have pointed to spontaneous acts of affection as a way of showing love and helping kids disconnect from their technical devices.
But Buttris insists that asking before any kind of physical engagement is the best policy for any grandparent wanting to respect their grandchild’s boundaries.
“Grandparents and other relatives and friends can ask for permission before touching,” said Buttris.
“They can listen to a child, ask how they’re feeling, pay attention to their body language. They can verbally and physically respect a ‘NO’ without shaming. ‘Because you said no to a kiss today, I won’t kiss you. Is there another way you would like to say goodbye?’
“The parents of the child have a huge role to play while the family are learning the ‘body safety rules’. It’s their place to support their child’s decisions, offer support to grandparents who are feeling disrespected or sad, offer alternative greeting options, and avoid forcing a child to hug, kiss or be touched.”
The old adage of children getting ‘what they need’ as opposed to ‘what they want’ has been a long-standing method of parenting, and generally speaking, parents force-feeding their children healthy food in light of a child’s request for chocolate and ice-cream is encouraged.
And an argument could be made that the same approach regarding affection could be beneficial for a child in terms of feeling loved.
The problem with a question like this is that both sides of this argument have something very valuable to lose.
On the one hand, the relationship between a child and a grandparent can be one of the most rewarding and purest forms of true love imaginable, and it feels disrespectful and alarmist to lump millions of well-intentioned elderly people into a conversation that involves their grandchildren and the topic of consent, given the sexual connotations.
But on the other hand, in a society where physical, verbal and sexual abuse is still a major issue, teaching people from a young age about consent and having control over their body is a valid endeavour, even if some adult feelings get hurt in the process.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on regarding this topic, parents should trust their instincts regarding their kids, and any feelings of unease when a child is in the presence of a family member should be all the incentive required to remove the child from that person’s presence.
Whether or not you think that kisses from a grandparent should require asking permission, the one thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that those kisses are special.