Ahead of the holiday season, the Girl Scouts bestowed an eye-opening gift on parents of daughters: a crash course in consent.
"Reminder: She doesn't owe anyone a hug. Not even at the holidays," read a memo from the 105-year-old American organization, published online last month.
The Scouts' parenting advice was blunt: If your children don't want to hug or kiss a relative or friend, don't force them to. Even if these guests have come from far away bearing an armload of gifts, pushing your daughters into physical affection sends questionable messages about consent and about what is owed.
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While we used to think cajoling kids into a squeeze from Uncle Stan amounted to minding your manners, this bit of family etiquette is getting a second look. Parenting philosophies now highlight the bodily autonomy of children, who are largely defenceless and have little control over many aspects of their lives. Giving kids the final say about who they hug and kiss is an early lesson in setting boundaries and expecting them to be respected, experts say.
"We're teaching kids that they can learn to be assertive about who touches them and when, which is preparation for the kind of consent that they'll be giving later on when they are able to consent to intimate activity with another person," said Lyba Spring, a sexual-health educator who worked with Toronto Public Health for three decades.
"It's preparation for the future," Spring said. "This should be as open a discussion as diaper rash."
Even so, some parents balked at the Girl Scouts' memo, criticizing it as helicopter parenting of "bubble kids." Others felt saddened that this would spell lost connection with extended family, and a rise in rudeness. Some parents didn't see the connection between dodging a hug from Aunt Beatrice and asserting yourself years later at a college frat party. Speaking with Good Morning America, one psychiatrist called it "mass hysteria."
But the Scouts' memo wasn't actually a blanket ban on affection. It was a plea for parents not to strong-arm children into unwanted physical contact. Nor was it an invitation to drop social graces: Saying "thank you" for a gift or "hello" to a guest at the door is still expected, even if submitting to a sloppy kiss is not.
Experts stress that the Scouts' message on bodily autonomy can help kids to better assert themselves if a line is crossed. It's one of several tangible approaches geared toward prevention and early reporting of sexual abuse, abuse which is largely perpetrated by adults that children know.
"Forcing kids to hug or kiss someone they don't want to sends the message that it's the adult who decides who you touch and how you should feel about a touch. That's a dangerous message and it can place kids at risk for harm," said Audrey Rastin, manager, prevention and public education at Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre in Toronto.
Toronto writer Michael Murray and his wife, video director Rachelle Maynard, try not to pressure their two-year-old son Jones to hug or kiss anyone. That includes his mom and dad. "Our path is just to let him choose his course and not force it," said Murray, 51. "'Kiss daddy! Hug me! Love me!' I don't want to do that."
Of course if Jones wants to be squeezed, it's all systems go. "I don't want him to stop spontaneous displays of affection to his grandmother or our neighbour who comes over. He's excited to see him and runs over to hug him. I think that's good."
They're also teaching their son that it's a two-way street. "His best friend Vivian is two years old. We're trying to get him to understand how she feels. She doesn't always want to be hugged," Murray said. "I don't want to put fear in him, or shame, but to teach him respect and empathy."
Given that Jones is a toddler, Murray and Maynard treat this as an exercise in personal space, not consent or sexuality. Permission and respect are other ways to frame the discussion with young kids, experts say.
"People think that you can't start having these conversations with kids who are very young, that consent is an issue you talk about at 16. What we've found is that you need to start having the conversations early," said Jill Zelmanovits, chief executive officer of Girl Guides of Canada.
The Girl Guides have developed a comprehensive "Say No to Violence" program, including lessons on getting permission, learning what makes you uncomfortable and building the confidence to speak up and uphold your personal boundaries. Through inventive activities, girls learn that "no" and "stop" aren't bad words. The Guides' youngest branch, Sparks, age five and six, partner up and get an "action," like high fives, shoulder taps or hugs. One girl starts by asking if it's okay to begin; the other must stop the activity when she's had enough. In Guides, 11-year-old girls walk toward their partners until they issue a "stop statement," like "Stop, that's close enough" or "I don't like that."
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"It's actually a pretty powerful thing to see an entire room of five-year-olds who are recognizing their boundaries and saying 'yes' and 'no' on their own terms," Zelmanovits said. "If there was ever a time where girls need to be developing this type of confidence and resilience skills, it's certainly now."
The holidays put these exercises to the test. Reuniting relatives often espouse wildly different parenting styles. How does the hugging-optional rule shake down on the ground? Do parents give their kids the opt-out spiel before guests pile in the door, or tackle things in real time? Experts say either is fine, but stress that parents need to mediate the situation so relatives and kids aren't left embarrassed.
It's a conversation Boost's Rastin had to navigate in her own family. Over the holidays, the tradition has been for the children to go around the room and hug and kiss everyone goodnight. "We're a family of touchers. It was hard for my family to come around when my kids weren't comfortable with that," Rastin said. "There was absolutely resistance and it wasn't just the older people, actually. But when you frame it in terms of safety, everyone comes to the same place."
At Rachel Patten's house in Trenton, Ont., the rule with her three children, age four to seven, is simple: their body, their choice.
"It's not always easy with family and friends who just don't understand, but for the most part we are surrounded by people who understand that my children are human beings and are the bosses of their bodies," said Patten, 36. "It's not that we're anti-snuggle or anti-hug. It's that it's what they need."
Patten said she's trying to set up her children for a lifetime of understanding consent.
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"It's not just some poster in the bathroom that says 'No Means No.' This is actually their body. It's not there for our entertainment and our need to feel loved. What we miss sometimes is that children are people."
Murray and Maynard are considering a similar route at the mall this holiday.
"Most of the photos you see on social media of children with the mall Santa are terrified children, traumatized children. That's what you hope to get from the photograph, in fact. It's not about the smiling toddler but, 'Ha, ha!' the scared toddler. And Santa's a boozy creep. That's the meme," Murray observed.
He's decided: "We haven't put Jones on Santa's lap and probably won't."