Inappropriate touching: Forcing children to kiss relatives IS harmful (so there!)

9 January, 2014

In this post I am going to argue that inappropriate touching is any touching that is not consented to by the child. In my work for a Child Abuse Prevention charity I have become absolutely convinced that even “harmless” hello and goodbye hugs when forced upon a child make up inappropriate touching. If we want our children to get their heads around inappropriate touching than we need to give them the space to say YES or NO to even our kindest relatives who would like to show physical affection.

It is funny when someone says something in the newspaper that is clearly 100% reasonable and then you read the comments on it and realise that 100% of the rest of humankind think it is unreasonable.

Today it was Lucy Emmerson, of the Sex Education Forum, who suggested that children shouldn’t be forced to kiss relatives as it’s important for children to learn that their bodies are their own.

I read the article and thought “Yep, er, no brainer. If we respect a child’s body, they will learn to respect it and will understand when someone isn’t respecting it. Always good to reiterate it.” And then, in a blatant and outrageous breaking of the Number One Rule for Calm Internet Use, scrolled through the comments and I was completely gobsmacked.

People were SPITTING TACKS! Breathing fire! Doing voodoo! They absolutely HATED what Lucy had to say!

I took a few breaths and tried to read the comments with my understanding face on. Fortunately for me, I pay £3 a month for the privilege of having my own wee piece of the internet and can answer some of the tack-spitting objections leisurely right here, in the safe knowledge they will never see it and do voodoo on me, but I will still have it off my chest:

“More socialist drivel!”
HARHAHAHAHAHA *falls about* I love how right-wingers blame everything they disagree with on socialism! (What? Pot? Kettle? Black? But everything rubbish in the world IS Thatcher’s fault!) But you know what? This dude has a point. The way we treat children DOES have an enormous impact on society and its structures. Forcing children to do something they don’t want to do just to fit into societal rituals WILL likely create a generation of people who nod along with the current unfair, Capitalist system. (So, if you’d like your children to be discerning adults that listen to their hearts and don’t blithely follow authority then consider how you should treat them now, and whether that involves forcing them to kiss Aunty Vernon goodbye.)

“Not hugging someone who wants a hug is offensive!”
People are worried that not simply letting Aunty Vernon give their toddler a smooch might offend Aunty Vernon and the rest of the family. It is hard, offending family members. But what is more important to you- hurting Aunty Vernon’s feelings or your child’s? You can always make up for it by giving Aunty an extra enormous hug from your own full heart.

(Also, notice how similar to the “I was too embarrassed to say no!” we often hear about teenage peer pressue?)


Plus, if your children swear as much as mine Aunty Vernon not getting a kiss is the least of your families worries. ARHAHAHA.

“Children need physical touch!”
They do. It is vital! As many hugs and kisses as they like! (As THEY LIKE.) Ramona loves to cuddle her grandparents. She climbs onto their laps all the time and loves them dearly. But she finds goodbyes really hard and doesn’t enjoy those goodbye kisses. By not forcing them to happen we are simply respecting her body and emotions.

Even if you are not entirely convinced that building a culture of consent/ and lack of a culture of consent begins in our very youngest children (I am convinced, don’t know if you picked that up?) surely we can all agree that children should quite simply be treated with the respect with which we treat adults? I would never, ever in a million years try and coerce another adult to do something physical against his wishes and I just don’t think children should be coerced in this way either.

It’s the Golden Rule- and it applies to children too.

“This teaches kids that all adults are predators!”
Noone is saying to the child “Don’t let adults hug or kiss you- they are all devils!” – in fact, for small children it’s unlikely sinister stuff has come up at all as a topic of conversation. Adults can simply let their child decline a cuddle, if they don’t feel like it. There is time and space to talk about consent and the fact that there are bad people out there- but that is a good conversation to have sensitively at the right time. What this does teach is that a child’s body is their own body, providing a firm foundation for self respecting body autonomy.

I really do want to say to people who worry about this: People who allow body autonomy in their children are not saying you are a predator. They are not suspicious people. They are not writing off men as monsters. We are helping our children to trust themselves and to be strong within themselves.

“If we let them choose who they kiss and hug, where does it stop?!”
Ah, well, EXACTLY. And, to end on a light note, there’s the beauty of this body autonomy thing – it also applies to things like wiping snot from your kid’s nose. So if you follow it all the way through your kid will be wiping their own nose, very badly, and Aunty Vernon won’t even WANT a hug from your crunchy-bogey faced kid. That is one way we get around it.

Please help your child understand that THEY and only THEY get to say who touches thier body. Anything less than full consent = inappropriate touching.

Do you enforce goodbye kisses and cuddles? What made you realise you were going to let your child decide how to greet/ farewell people? What would some of your answers be to these objections?

PS- If you want to find out more about building a culture of consent even with babies read this fantastic article by His Feminist Mama.

PPS- For more parenting/ travelling / thrifty blogging follow through Facebook or Bloglovin

You Might Also Like

  • Vicky 9 January, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Oooohh, I really like this post – I always try to treat my two like miniature adults. If they don’t want to kiss or cuddle someone, I don’t make them. If they don’t want to play and be tickled, I leave them alone. I always try to imagine how I’d react if they were in fact forty year old adults – I wouldn’t shove my face in front of theirs and demand kisses, and I certainly wouldn’t wrestle them to the ground crying, “but you love a tickle! You do! Tickle tickle wickle!” Unfortunately, the in-laws and my husband are from the Dark Side, and seem to have a total blank to any kind of respectful parenting – the battle to try and educate them can be quite wearying. *Lies down for a snooze*

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      I am sure they are picking stuff up from you though, Vicky

  • Valerie 9 January, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Unconsciously I have always said ‘Do you want to give Granny (etc) a kiss before we go?’ It was never really a deeply thought out thing, its just like, ‘would you like a drink’ ‘do you want me to read you a story’. Oscar (aged 4 now) has often said no and luckily the family members are cool with it. Personally I had a big loud Aunt who used to hug and squeeze us to death. She was also a cleaner in my high school and I would hide from her and then feel very guilty about it, but even at 15 in front of my friends she would hug and kiss me and it mortified me.

  • Zehra 9 January, 2014 at 11:27 am

    This is so interesting because my sister and I were forced to kiss everyone! That’s typical inTurkish culture and one day, we declared no more kissing an aunt we hated ands we just stopped…at the ages 13&10 and felt like we weren’t being hypocritical anymore! I agree with this post, even if I do wipe snot away from my baby’s face …

  • Tina 9 January, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I very much agree with what you say.
    Also the comments below the article are crazy!
    I was starting to write a reply there when I thought, no, don´t feed the trolls. It´s just a waste of time and energy.
    So I leave a comment here, to say that your blog is one my favorites and I wish you all the best for your new start in NZ!

  • Dawn Sinclair 9 January, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    I read the comments, why? WHY did I read the comments?

    My son knows his body is his and mine is mine, if I don’t want to be grabbed or whatever by him he knows he should stop. If he doesn’t want to be tickled by me he tells me and I stop. How is this a bad thing? He is told, if he over steps that no means no and if somebody can’t say no for whatever reason, that means no as well, there will be no blurred lines in this child’s life where body autonomy is concerned. I made it QUITE CLEAR from the beginning that if The Cub doesn’t want to hug or kiss anyone his wishes would be respected. Sometimes, my partner forgets this when it’s somebody he loves and needs to be reminded quite firmly, luckily I do not give a flying fig who is around when this happens.

  • Becca 9 January, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    I agree, small children should learn that they can stop physical contact they don’t want with a “no”. I’ll even ask my 18mo DS if he wants a kiss and he’ll either agree or get me to kiss one of his teddies instead (they go in the washing machine. A lot.)

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:44 pm

      Same here 🙂

  • Kathryn 9 January, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Speaking as a childfree aunt, may I also point out that some relatives dislike it as much as many children. I am happy to engage with small children in the family but have no wish to kiss them, especially when they are covered in snot, food or other organic matter. Their parents are absolutely fine with this, but it seems to cause issues with grandparents who assume that all adults are just dying to scoop up the nearest child and rain smooches down like some form of horrible love bombing.

    • ThaliaKR 10 January, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Great point, and so true!

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:44 pm

      EXCELLENT point! It can be awks for the adults too!

  • Toby Goes Bananas 9 January, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    This hasn’t really come up yet for us because Toby is only 6 months old…but I know when it comes to it I won’t force him to kiss or cuddle anyone. I still hate having to kiss my gran (I know, I’m terrible) and even more so my mother-in-law (who once actually kissed me on the neck as I tried to dodge a vigorous kiss on the cheek!). If I hate it as a grown woman of 35 why should I make my kids do it? And while we’re on the topic of kissing, I don’t know if I’m the only person who thinks this but I think kissing children on the lips is inappropriate, full stop. Even if they are your own kids. Kissing on the lips is for grown-ups and horny teenagers – not relatives!

    • Rebecca 17 January, 2014 at 6:31 pm

      I’m grown and I still kiss my mom on the lips… Stopped for a while in my teenage years because it was embarrassing and weird. Cheek kisses only. But as an adult, I’ve returned to kissing her on the lips. It works for us!

  • Bek 9 January, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    I’d never even thought about it. I always say to Kit ‘Are you going to give so-in-so a kiss or a cuddle goodbye?’ but half the time he says ‘no’ and I say, ‘Oh ok, suit yourself’. I’m surprised that people are actually forcing their children to, how?! (Or am I technically considered forcing him by asking if he is going to?).

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      I think you are just going with the flow! In a good way. I often mention to Ramona we are leaving and she could say some special Byes, just in case she regrets not having the chance.

  • JosieZ 9 January, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Babies are soooooo lovely and cuddly and kissable, it’s a shame that we won’t be allowed to do it now.

    Grannies are often a bit whiskery and wrinkled so I guess, given the choice, their GCs aren’t going to kiss them any more. Sad imo.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:42 pm

      They are not objects 🙂

  • KITCAC 9 January, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    JWop, at 20 months, knows that he has a choice to give someone a kiss or he can shake their hand.

    Based on the amount of gunk in his nostrils/on his cheeks/all over everywhere, I would personally prefer a handshake.

  • Lilybett 10 January, 2014 at 1:30 am

    You had me right up to the snot thing.

    We don’t make our boy kiss or hug anyone (we’re teaching him to shake hands to give him another choice that allows for a little distance if he wants it). I found it really weird when so many parents were happily forcing their kids to sit (screaming and crying) on a fat, beardy-man’s lap over the holidays. Weeeeeiiiirrrrddddd. What is that teaching your kid?

    But the snot thing… yeah, that’s a health and gross issue for me. Happy to leave snot on his face if it stayed there… but it invariably ends up on me and others after he comes in for the ninja attack hug or after he’s wiped it up his arm and goes about touching anything and everything. And when it’s green… I don’t want it spread around.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      I think you should try letting him do it. They get it eventually (yours will especially as he’ll pick up on your horror!) and meanwhile you have infringed on his right for body autonomy.

  • Teeny 10 January, 2014 at 1:33 am

    Yeah, I don’t force my kids into hugs etc with family….my kids will kiss and hug those relatives that they are genuinely close with and have genuine feelings of empathy for. I must say I do think there is merit in not forcing the affection based on an overall concern about kids lack of power where adults are concerned – and body ownership. BUT, when I was a child my family was closer, we had a really close extended family and kisses and hugs were normal everyday shows of affection. I can’t help but think, if my family spent more time together now, twice a week and all weekend (as mine used to do) – that it would be more natural for the kids to want to be physically close to their aunts/uncles/grandies (um appropriately of course). Touch is a very normal part of showing affection, having said that, it shouldn’t be forced, and if people are forcing it between children and their relatives then one must ask if they are really close enough to warrant this pretend affection. I’m babbling, but I think what i’m trying to say is….as our society becomes more fragmented, there is less closeness perhaps, therefore less intimacy with a wider group of people (including family). Parents may be encouraging unwanted kisses/hugs based on their own childhood experiences or expectations – which is no longer current or genuine based on less intimacy in wider family circles these days. I do babble.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:32 pm

      Excellent point! So if parents want to encourage more cuddling they need to nurture more hang out time so it occurs naturally.

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 10 January, 2014 at 1:46 am

    Oh my god, thank you for reading the comments so I didn’t have to. Have no energy for the blood pressure surge of frustration today.

    I remember that childhood was a PARTICULAR time of boundaries. People say, why would you ask a child to do something an adult wouldn’t be forced to do? But while that logic applies, it is beyond that, because children feel MORE vulnerable and don’t have any sense of control of their boundaries while adults usually have an ability to grin and bear it without its destroying some piece of their sense of sanctuary if they have to give a kiss to granny.

    When I worked as a nanny, before I was a mother, I remember thinking that children were like cats – very loving but MY GOD let them come to you when and as they like. Read a book, build with blocks, do the dishes, they will creep round and want to have a chat eventually. Build a bridge and let them choose when and how far to cross it.

    I am ASTOUNDED that this isn’t the consensus. Ugh.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Yes, of course. I think that’s a great point- the vulnerability and powerlessness children already feel.

  • ThaliaKR 10 January, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Thank you for this, Lucy. I really couldn’t agree more.

    Our boy does like kissing and cuddling people goodbye, as a general principle, so we now usually ask him if he’d like to do so, just by way of telling him now is a good time, but we are very clear that he doesn’t have to.

    If he doesn’t want to, I frequently reinforce his freedom by saying, ‘that’s fine, you’re always in charge of who you kiss and cuddle’.

    Thanks for the link, ages ago, to the His Feminist Mama article, which has been very helpful in my thinking.

    We’ve recently had a couple of hideous rape cases in New Zealand that got a lot of news coverage. The phrase ‘rape culture’ came into the mainstream for the first time, and I wrote here, referencing you and HFMama, about how building a culture of consent with littlies is part of the way we can get rid of rape culture:

    This stuff is so important. Thanks again.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:39 pm

      Fantastic post.

  • LaRona Son 10 January, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    This post assumes the absence of any form of abuse. When we hug and kiss a child we primarily do it because human beings need love and affection to thrive. We want our kids to be happy, secure and nurtured. Elderly people also suffer from touch neglect and often depression. Your child should be educated about this and that hugs and appropriate touch are ways we demonstrate love. Kids don’t want to hug because they are generally selfish. We need to teach our kids to put the feelings of others first and to experience to joy of giving. This is no different than teaching to share.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      I don’t agree that children are generally selfish.

      I see that when left to their own devices children quite naturally cuddle and stroke those they love- just not at the set times such as goodbyes.

      And I think if an abused child is forced to cuddle? That is really not gonna help at all.

  • Jean-marie 10 January, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    I live in France and saying hello and goodbye (to friends and family members) is automatically done with a kiss (well, actually, three kisses). At the start, I found it weird – but now I find it strange (and feel that it’s a bit rude) if a child doesn’t give a kiss upon meeting and leaving. I suppose it’s all down to culture. Also, my in-laws are extremely close, so everyone loves kissing and hugging everyone, which I suppose gets passed down to the children “naturally”.

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      Yeah, I’d say, given the time and space cultural norms are transmitted naturally.

      If grown ups find a child’s hesitation rude, I’d say that is their problem?

  • JosieZ 10 January, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    What happens if someone has a deformity or scarring – and this could be your child – do they just have to accept no kisses except from the very closest of family?

    • Lucy 10 January, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      You think it would be better if they were forced to kiss relatives?

  • Jude 10 January, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Yes, this has crossed my mind too. I think it’s ok to enforce manners but draw the line at affection. Great post. X

  • JosieZ 12 January, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I said ‘What happens if someone has a deformity or scarring – and this could be your child – do they just have to accept no kisses except from the very closest of fa

    What I was meaning mainly was a scarred member of the family, maybe an auntie, grandpa, whilst your child happily kisses other family members this scarred person makes them uncomfortable so are not kissed. In this politically correct world this would be ok, likewise it could be the case with the one ‘coloured’ or non-coloured person if everyone else was white, the child would, imo, not kiss them without encouragement.
    This is what you want, the already ostracized in our society being futher ostracized.
    And, as I said, it could be your child, perhaps older child, or adult child, who is the ostracized one.
    I think I agree with the principle but you are assuming your household is the only household, others might include extended families, mixed races etc and deformed members, imagine everyone in the family being kissed except the one with cerebral palsy, you are saying you would be happy with this?
    Is this a good example of how to bring your child up, perhaps there will be children with cerebral palsy in his class at school, he will have learned that it is ok to treat these people different.

  • JosieZ 12 January, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Also you say this ‘If grown ups find a child’s hesitation rude, I’d say that is their problem?’

    Not at all would I find the hesitation rude, how ridiculous, I would find it hurtful, but shrug it off as children are entitled to act how they wish.

  • mum 12 January, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    So true. As a child i always had to kiss the elderly folks at church. Fast forward to age 12, im roller skating with friends on the smooth ramp by the old folks bungalows. An elderly mansaid something like “give us a kiss”. I obediently did, which he turned into my first snog! My poor mum felt so guilty for teaching me that…!

  • sarahhillwheeler 13 January, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    I hadn’t even thought of this as an issue. Boy is naturally quite tactile and was actually told off at nursery for being too huggy….which irked me. I would, however, agree it is wrong to force children to kiss or give hugs if they don’t want to.

    However, I do think one has to be a bit careful here. J was taught to shake hands at an early age and I would insist on him saying goodbye and being polite. If he doesn’t want to hug/kiss someone because of a disability or their appearance, when he is hugging/kissing others then I don’t know what I would do…I guess I would try and encourage him to see things from their perspective, but it is something I would feel uncomfortable with. Yes, knowing one can choose not to do something with your body is an important lesson, but so is learning how to interact socially and not causing unnnecessary hurt.

    I am afraid I am not with you on wiping the snot away. I do understand the autonomy argument. But believe me, Boy would still be going to school with a face full of encrusted bogeys and toothpaste if I wasn’t there with a wet tissue, although I am working on some arm-length bribery tactics now.

  • 'Colours are for Everyone' + 38 More Phrases for Feminist Parenting - Sacraparental 8 March, 2016 at 11:27 am

    […] ‘Give Grandma a kiss.’ (More on allowing kids to refuse hugs at Lulastic.) […]

  • 5 Phrases That Can Help Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse 3 May, 2016 at 7:07 am

    […] goodbye. It might be with nothing,  a smile, a wave, a high five, a hug. I am a huge advocate that children must never be forced to show affection, yet our children almost always opt for full blown hugs and kisses. I guess this is because they […]

  • (Hopefully Not) Passing on Rape Culture - Sacraparental 4 January, 2017 at 8:06 am

    […] For our family, this means things like asking or telling our toddler we’re going to touch him, change his nappy, whatever – the same way you would an adult in a hospital bed, perhaps – and letting him know he’s in charge of things like whether he gives anyone a kiss or cuddle. […]