Remember Old Aunty Eileen? The one who always smelled faintly of cabbage? The one with the moustache? The one your parents pushed you relentlessly towards, each December, with the horror-inducing words: “Give Aunty Eileen a kiss. You won’t see her for another year!”
That’s right. The stuff Christmas nightmares are made of. So, let’s ask ourselves – when we recall how much we hated it, why do we still do this to our kids? (See also: spitting on a tissue and wiping their faces, or telling them they have to clear their plates, even when they protest their stomachs are full).
Parents – we never learn. But this particular issue runs deeper than that, and it’s far more important. Because it’s about consent. And if we don’t teach our kids the concept of boundaries – that they have the right to say “no” and that they have control over their bodies, whether they’re five or 15 years old – who will?
Cases of sexual abuse of babies and children under ten in Britain are becoming more frequently documented, and The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse estimates that 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16. And according to the NSPCC, 90% of children who experience sexual abuse are abused by someone they know.
If we don’t give children a voice, how can we expect them to speak up when the worst happens? Our kids are growing up in a #MeToo world – it’s just as important to teach consent to our sons as to our daughters. And that starts by telling them they don’t have to do anything that doesn’t feel right.
This goes for all sorts of behaviours: from kissing and hugging ancient relatives on Boxing Day, to tickling – nothing leaves a small child feeling more out of control than being pinned down and tickled by an adult until they’re left half-laughing, half-crying, begging for them to stop.
And it’s never too early to start. I did 10 weeks of ‘baby yoga’ with my son, when he was just six months old. At the beginning of every session, I wiggled my fingers in the air and asked him if it was okay for me to touch him. Every single time, he smiled and gurgled and pulled my hands towards him... that is, if he managed to stay awake. For me, it was just about learning a new habit; a new way of talking. Now he’s two and I still ask, every single time.
Be prepared for a backlash. I’ve got friends who nudge their kids forward without thinking, who tell their toddlers and pre-schoolers to give me a kiss on the lips when we say goodbye... even though I see their little ones so infrequently I am practically a stranger.
Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles may expect it, simply because they’ve never questioned it. But it’s simple to work around – and as easy as empowering our children to use the words “no thank you”.
It doesn’t have to mean making people feel insulted. Here are some alternatives to the full-contact hug or kiss that your child might like to offer instead (but always let them choose):
:: Offer a grown-up handshake
:: Go big with a high-five (or a high-ten)
:: Take a leaf out of this teacher’s book and let the kids choose the greeting (from a hug to a handshake, high-five, elbow wiggle or even a ‘let’s dance’)
:: A wave (particularly reassuring for the shy child)
:: Nothing. No contact at all? No problem.