She's 7, and she's been holding these wildcat strikes since she was 3 or 4. Her parents can get a hug or a kiss, but many people who know her cannot, at least not all the time. And I won't make her.
"I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won't make you do it," I first told her three years ago.
"I don't have to?" she asked, cuddling up to me at bedtime, confirming the facts to be sure.
No, she doesn't have to. And just to be clear, there is no passive-aggressive, conditional, manipulative nonsense behind my statement. I mean what I say. She doesn't have to hug or kiss anyone just because I say so, not even me. I will not override my own child's currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch.
I figure her body is actually hers, not mine.
It doesn't belong to her parents, uncles and aunts, school teachers or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn't have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.
I shuddered at stories of Josh Duggar's "inappropriate touching" of his sisters
, accusations that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted women after drugging them
and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach
convicted of sexually abusing young boys. And they strengthen my resolve to teach my kid that it's OK to say no to an adult who lays a hand on her -- even a seemingly friendly hand.
"When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend's feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them," said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International
, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention.
"This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so 'he'll like me' and kids enduring bullying because everyone is 'having fun.' "
Protection against predators
Forcing children to touch people when they don't want to leaves them vulnerable to sexual abusers, most of whom are people known to the children they abuse, according to Ursula Wagner, a mental health clinician with the FamilyWorks program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago. None of the child victims of sexual abuse or assault she's counseled was attacked by strangers, she said.
Sometimes a child picks up on something odd about your brother-in-law that no one knows. Maybe he isn't a sexual predator. Maybe he has no sense of boundaries. Maybe he tickles too much, which can be torture for a person who doesn't like it.