I just read a brilliant article on the Guardian. Last year I might have just shared on Facebook with an exuberantly punctuated ‘This!’ But a) saying ‘This!’ is a bit passée now or so I am given to understand, and b) I’m starting to get a bit of time back to do some blogging and this is as good a topic as any to kick off the New Year.
So, tl;dr the article contends it is contradictory to teach children about consent and maintaining control over their own bodies whilst ‘forcing’ them to bestow physical affection on Grandparents (or for that matter any other relative.) This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Furthermore I was impressed at the clarity of Barbieri’s argument, and the inclusion of the disclaimer at the start, presumably designed to mitigate against the criticisms which sadly would come anyway. I was disappointed by the comments expressed horror that the author dare condemn such innocent activity, branding her opinion ‘perverse’ and ‘troubling’.
Once I stopped spluttering with indignation and exasperation on the writer’s behalf I started to unpack why I was having such a strong reaction. Firstly it’s because I feel she is quite definitely, uncontroversially, correct. It is inherently contradictory to teach children that they should have autonomy over who touches them and how, whilst at the same time placing social pressure on them to kiss & cuddle family members against their will. Whether or not that is a contradiction which society chooses to accept is perhaps a matter for debate but nevertheless it is surely undeniable that to do this is teach children a certain behaviour is bad unless an adult chooses to override that for their own spurious reasons.
Secondly, contact with another person doesn’t have to be sexual to be unwanted. Despite the interpretation of this article by many of the commenters, Barbieri does not say anywhere that hugging between family members has a sexual component. Insisting that if a child does not want to kiss granny then he shouldn’t have to, does not imply in any way that granny has paedophillic designs on her grandson. What it is doing however is teaching the child that their feelings about whether or not they want a particular form physical contact is, if not irrelevant, then at least secondary to the feelings that an adult has on the matter, whether that’s hurting Uncle’s feelings or embarrassing Mummy because little Timmy suddenly shies away from a whiskery peck like a spooked horse.
Thirdly, what kind of well-adjusted adult is incapable of forgoing their own whimsical preferences if it’s upsetting to a young member of their own family? I suppose I can understand that an adult might feel a momentary sense of rejection if their well intentioned display of affection is met with a less than enthusiastic response. But if a child says “No, I don’t want to” then, seriously, what kind of responsible adult responds with anything other than “Ok, you don’t have to”. Said, I might add, in a manner which clearly respects the child’s wishes as opposed to a pleading, emotionally blackmailing display of disappointment designed to guilt the child into doing it anyway!
Children can be capricious, hurtful, mean and self-centred, and part of responsible parenting involves teaching them about how other people’s feelings matter, and the importance of being polite. But surely learning that autonomy over one’s own body is important is the foundation for learning that on must respect the autonomy of other people as well.