• Katharine

Children's bodily autonomy and #metoo: changing the future.

I've long felt extremely uncomfortable about children being made to hug each other or to hug an adult. Something about it made me feel very uneasy, but it was hard to pinpoint what it was, particularly because people ooh and aah over kids hugging each other and I felt like a lone voice in this discomfort, without really understanding what my voice wanted to say.


I've always let my daughters know, when they're saying goodbye to a friend they've been playing with, for example, that if they want to hug their friend and the friend doesn't want to, they just say goodbye or wave. And the same goes the other way, that if their friend wants to hug them and they don't want to reciprocate, that is fine too. I've always tried to be quite vocal about it too, explaining to both children that sometimes we just don't feel like hugs and that's ok and that you should only hug someone if they feel like it. Little children can feel shy at such times and hide behind their parent, and the hopeful hugger can feel embarrassed and worried their friend doesn't like them. And the whole situation is often (in fact 'usually' in my experience) compounded by adults suggesting, or even insisting upon a hug in the first place, so there's a strong sense of obligation on the part of both children. And then there's a whole higher level of sense of obligation, shyness and embarrassment for the child when it comes to hugging a relative at goodbye time.


I'd read various articles about this exact thing when I started to realise why I felt so strongly about forced, or even just encouraged, hugs, when an incident with my then 4yo daughter crystallised the situation for me. We were at a friend's house catching up. Our daughter was playing near, but not really with, their slightly older son. He's a lovely boy. They're a lovely family. And I looked up to see him giving our daughter a big clasp of a hug. There was no way she could escape. And she clearly didn't want to be hugged and had no idea what on earth to do. The look on her face still absolutely haunts me and will for a long time. It was one of someone who was desperate to escape, who felt unbearably uncomfortable but, and this is the real killer, felt she should put up with it because that was what she should do. He wanted to hug her so she had to be hugged until he'd had his fill. Social convention. At 4. And lack of say over your own body. Over who touches you. At 4. And what did I do? It didn't last long, but I can't decide/remember whether it was too short a time for me to get my brain in gear and figure our how best to help her, or whether I in turn felt I should abide by social convention and not rock the boat by pulling her out of the hug. I fear, with utter dread and disgust, it was the latter. I put the preservation of my friendship above the safety and protection of my daughter. And that thought sickens me.


My boyfriend had to rush off to work later that evening and so I remember emailing him my thoughts and upset at what had happened. And he replied saying he'd felt the same. We agreed we should never let that happen again.


And so, I have continued to be even more vocal about hugging to my daughters and their friends and children of our friends. It's difficult sometimes because I have had to intervene and say to children that we must only hug people if we ask first and if they want a hug.


But the thing which astounds and angers me most is parents who, at going home time, tell their children to go and hug so-and-so. The issue of seeking consent is in no way present. In fact, the hopeful hugger not only feels no need to seek consent, but there is even a sense of obligation on his or her part to do as they're told. And in my experience again, this is the norm. Whenever you leave a play date, or a friends or family gathering, this occurs. It's awkward being the lone parent (or set of parents) who seemingly make an issue of this ritual.


But, if we as parents are appalled at the recent #metoo revelations and want our children to avoid such behaviour at all costs, it absolutely beggars belief that we are not doing something about this ritual in our children. It seems so blindingly obvious to me that changing the future for our children starts right here with changing their behaviour, and that in itself coming from us changing our behaviour towards our children.


I personally want my daughters to feel in complete control of their bodies. They are too little to engage in any discussion as to why just yet, but they should feel able to decide who hugs them and easily able to say no thank you. For whatever reason and to whoever, child or adult, friend or family. And the flip side of the coin is the absolute need for consent. I feel strongly that anyone, boy or girl (man or woman), must seek consent first. However, if we're wondering how to change the future in the wake of #metoo it is so incredibly important for us to teach our boys that they must ask if the other person wants a hug first and only, only hug them if they say yes.


It is so simple. It's simple to implement. It's simple for a child to understand, on both sides. And it is so fundamentally important I find it hard to quell the volcano of anger boiling in me at adults who still haven't woken up to this need. Perhaps they just haven't thought about it, perhaps they're just chatting to each other and don't really see what's happening on a child's level at goodbye time. But in the wake of #metoo this simply isn't good enough.




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