I caught a few minutes of Oprah yesterday as I was folding what felt like enough laundry to fill the shelves of a small department store. Winona Judd was discussing the scandal of her husband’s alleged child molestation charges, and she said something that caught my ear somewhere between socks and washcloths. While discussing the clarity that came from numerous therapy sessions, she said she utilizes the tools she learned in therapy to deal with her own children, everything from asking if they have time to talk to inquiring if she can give them a hug.
Winona is actively raising her kids differently than she was raised herself because when she was young she was forced to kiss everyone in her family, let any relative hug her, and there were little physical boundaries within the family. She wants to teach her kids that their body is their own and they do not have to do anything physical with anyone they don’t want to, including kissing or hugging relatives. As a child, she said she had to follow what she was told to do, and felt that she had no say over her own physical space, which over time lead her to feeling that she didn’t know who she was.
It’s true, growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, despite the feminist movement of that time, I, too was expected to readily give affection when I didn’t necessarily want to, be a good girl, and in general do things I didn’t want to do for the simple sake of pleasing others. It is the exact opposite of what I want for my children.
Interestingly enough, the rights of a child’s personal space has become a big issue among different generations, and particularly so during the holidays. My rule is that my kids must say hello and greet relatives, but they don’t have to kiss or hug them if they don’t want to. It’s not a matter of manners, but of boundaries. It is a good plan, until you get that one relative who demands they receive a kiss hello.
One Christmas, in the midst of the awkward “Give me a kiss” speech from a distant relative, my three-year-old frowned and looked down at the floor. I quickly jumped in and explained how I tell my daughter she has to say hello but she doesn’t have to kiss anyone if she doesn’t feel like it at the moment, but, of course, she was happy to see her. You would think I told this person that that her dog just died — and I killed it. When I look back, I wonder if I could have smoothed it over and not quite explained it all to a woman who clearly had an old school notion of children’s rights. Perhaps, I could have changed the subject and relieved my daughter of the obligation in a more subtle, if not completely honest way. But that would have taught my daughter that her right to set physical boundaries was somehow wrong.
Of course, we don’t want to insult anyone, particularly grandparents and other relatives. We want our kids to grow up feeling loved and be able to reciprocate that affection back to their family members, but on their own terms. As parents, it’s our job to teach our children how to take care of their own needs. Isn’t it safer when kids learn from the get-go that their body is their own?
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, it is estimated that over 80,000 cases of child sex abuse take place every year in the U.S., and the majority of abusers are family friends and relatives. So it’s not only useful for kids to learn boundaries, it’s vital. The American Academy, in fact advises teaching kids that it is OK to not listen to adults all of the time. “Parents can prevent or lessen the chance of sexual abuse by teaching children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority, for example, don’t tell children to, Always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells you to do.’
The problem is that this advice goes against many of our upbringings so it seems offensive to our parents, our children’s grandparents. Yet as harsh as it may sound, adults (even those with old-fashioned ideas) need to focus on the child instead of themselves. Our kids are people with their own feelings and perceptions and need to be treated that way. I defy adults to go around ordering other adults to kiss and hug each other. That would naturally be unheard of…so why, I ask would we make our kids do it?