You’ve all been there: unruly, unclean and narcissistic, yet for some reason, irresistible to everyone in your path. You are four years old at a family function. A stranger approaches. She looks and smells like leather. She has whiskers. She wants a kiss. You duck away, look to your parents for support. Not only do they ignore your calls for help, they are, in fact, aiding and abetting this sadistic ritual: “Give your auntie a kiss, sweetie,” they plead. “It will mean so much to her.” You abstain, they get stern and finally, defeated, you give in and let the whiskers brush your chin as the stranger plants a wet one on your tiny grimace.
Being forced to kiss and hug distant relatives—endure cheek-pinching from old people you’ve never met—is a universal annoyance, an age-old tradition most of us have experienced first-hand. But its days may be numbered. Support for a new parenting trend is on the rise, a trend defined not by the affection kids crave, but by the affection they detest. Irene van der Zande, founder of Kidpower International—a non-profit organization devoted to child safety (she founded Kidpower in 1985 after a man threatened to kidnap her children)—believes that forcing kids to show affection is potentially dangerous. “When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them,” writes van der Zande, “because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them. This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behaviour and kids enduring bullying because everyone is having fun.” Shirin Purnell, a Virginia parenting blogger who subcribes to this belief—she wrote about it last week on her blog, On the Fence—believes that even suggesting to your child that a relative might enjoy a hug or kiss is “emotional manipulation.”
At the risk of appearing emotionally manipulative, allow me to demur. Is the unspontaneous familial embrace always a catalyst for low self-esteem in the future? Surely a pity kiss for Aunt Marjorie when you’re 6 is a long way off from pity sex with a manipulative college boyfriend when you’re 21. And isn’t it possible for parents to teach their children the difference between inappropriate touching and touching that is—while annoying—not in any way predatory?
To her credit, van der Zande agrees that it’s possible—even likely—that formidable noodgery will not escalate into actual child abuse. But the anti-forced-affection philosophy, she says, is about risk prevention. Which is to say, it is about fear: the fear that someone or something could inflict harm upon your child, or cause your child to be more susceptible to harm down the road, somewhere, no matter how remote or vague the threat may be. In other words, it’s not so much about fear as it is about misplaced paranoia, the kind Barry Glassner codified in his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. To Glassner’s list of wrong things, which include crime, drugs and mutant microbes, we can now add tickle monsters.
“It’s a scary world out there, and if you are teaching your children that they have to respect all adults, that’s a problem,” parenting blogger Adam Dolgin told me last week (he runs the popular website, fodder4fathers.com). “In this day and age, you have to be skeptical of everyone,” he says. Dolgin makes perfect sense, until you consider the possibility that, while learning to be skeptical of everyone might be a valuable lesson for someone purchasing a used car, it’s probably less so for a child.
I am not advocating that kids be forced to kiss unpleasant relatives. Or smelly ones. Dolgin himself has a nephew who refuses to hug one of his grandfathers; they shake hands instead, a laudable compromise. But to portend doom at every unsolicited familial embrace is a little over the top.
Toronto parenting writer and blogger Samantha Kemp-Jackson agrees. She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with coaxing kids to show affection to relatives (she says opposition to it is “just another vestige of helicopter parenting”). But she admits to harbouring some excessive safety fears herself. “My parents used to say, ‘Go out and play and come back at dinnertime.’ But I don’t let my daughter walk to school and it’s three blocks away. I realize on an intellectual level this is silly, but on some level, I have bought into the fact that the world is a much more scary place.”
That’s the irony—and hypocrisy—of new-age parenting as it pertains to the grabby grandparent dilemma. The kids given the tools to stand up for themselves are often the most sheltered. Parents believe they’re doing the progressive thing, giving their children the freedom to hug and kiss as they please—to offend leathery aunts at will. But is this the liberty kids want, or need, most? Their free time is structured; they can’t walk to school without an adult; and, according to a recent U.K. study, they’re statistically prone to depression because they’re no longer allowed to explore nature unsupervised. They may have the freedom to withhold kisses from nana, but they can’t even leave their own backyards. The freedom to roam has been replaced with the freedom of dissent—which is essentially the freedom to keep yourself out of harm’s way. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, sure. But for kids today, it may be another word for nothing left to do.
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