Awkward Kisses From Grandparents Are Apparently Making Kids Anti-Consent

It’s a serious problem that kids grow up in this culture not understanding the concept of consent, and that’s definitely an issue we need to prioritize as a society. But did one prominent sex educator take the discussion… too far?

Lucy Emmerson of the Sex Education Forum has caused a huge stir online with her recent suggestion that telling children to kiss their relatives is counterproductive to teaching them about consent:

I believe learning about consent starts from age zero. Much is learnt by young children from everyday experiences about whether or not their opinion is valued and if they have any control over physical contact with others. Intervening may be awkward, but it is necessary if we are truly to teach children that their bodies are their own and that their instincts should be followed. If we can’t create a culture of consent for everyday physical contact, it will be surely a tall order for sexual situations.

The weirdest part of this whole thing is that 1) she sounds crazy and 2) no, she doesn’t.

On the one hand, I remember being a kid and feeling like I didn’t have any ownership over myself in the slightest, and I can see how that mindset could potentially stop a child who’s experiencing sexual abuse from realizing that there’s something wrong. It’s absolutely a problem that young people don’t understand consent, and it’s absolutely a problem that kids are subconsciously taught from birth that their bodies don’t belong to them. On the other hand, reluctantly kissing grandma’s cheek at her birthday party is very different from dangerous sexual situations, and Emmerson might be going way overboard by trying to compare those things.

What do you think? Is Emmerson making feminism look like it’s trying too hard, or does she make a valid point? Is telling kids to show affection to their families a harmless lesson in kindness, or is it breeding kids who are afraid to say no to unwanted physical contact?

Via Telegraph / Photo: Shutterstock

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    • Kaitlin Reilly

      I half agree with her. I don’t think that anyone should force anybody else to kiss anyone they don’t want to. However, I think it’s far more important to teach children to differentiate between a nice, familial gesture and one that is inappropriate. You don’t want kids running and hiding every time someone tries to hug them or kiss them on the cheek because they were told that is something they shouldn’t do, ever, under any circumstances. You need to teach children how to protect their own boundaries, not to avoid any and all contact with others.

      • Anne Marie Hawkins

        I don’t think anyone is saying that kids should never hug or kiss their relatives, only that they should never be required to do so. You know, just don’t force them to if they don’t want to.

    • elle

      I have seen this discussion pop up a few times on parenting forums I read and I think it’s an interesting one to have. On the one hand, no I would never ever make my son kiss anybody he didn’t want to-not me, his dad, grandparents etc. I’m just not comfortable forcing that. But he is also very young and when he is a bit older I would like too teach him there is a difference between familial contact and unwanted contact. On the other hand on some of these sites you stumble across people who in my view take it a little too far. Like there was one commenter who wouldn’t brush her daughter’s hair because her daughter didn’t want her too. Like really? That seems a bridge too far. So I guess I would say I like 3/4 agree with her, and I think some people take it way too far.

    • Lindsey Conklin

      I definitely understand her point, but I also think it’s too dramatic. Hugging/kissing relatives is a normal, appropriate interaction and I think if you give them an opportunity to deny this, it will create disrespect. I do think kids should full understand consent though

      • Anne Marie Hawkins

        There’s an opportunity to demonstrate negotiating consent here, though. If you say “Will you give Grandma a kiss goodbye?” and get a no, you can always go “How about a hug?”

    • Anne Marie Hawkins

      I totally agree with her. I think that teaching kids that they have the right to set boundaries for physical contact, as well as the right to expect others to respect those boundaries, is a really important part of creating consent culture. It teaches them that even if they are not in a position of power within a relationship, they still have a right to their personal space. And as kids get older and develop the ability to empathize with others, it helps them realize that the inverse is true as well – they are never entitled to another person’s space or physical contact.

    • CrosslyStitched

      I agree with her. My big thing is that I teach my kids that they never have to trade affection for gifts, for example, “give me a kiss and I’ll give you this toy” or the “not until you give me a kiss” ploy. I’ve taught them that anyone who says, “if you loved me you would do blank” is wrong. I ask for kisses and hugs. If they say no I tell them that I respect their choice. That’s not to say I don’t spontaneously hug and kiss them.

    • CrazyLogic

      I actually kind of sort of agree with this. I have a thing about being touched. I do not like being touched without permission and especially do not like it without warning. People teach kids to be polite and let adults hug you and all that other bullshit. This meant I couldn’t express my dislike of physical contact until I was a in college. The “you shouldn’t push them away, it’s rude” mentality didn’t leave me until one of my friends said I shouldn’t be so passive when I was uncomfortable about boys touching me, because that could get me in a dangerous situation for “leading him on” when it was really a case of me not knowing how to tell him to stop.

      The dislike of being touched is not something you just get over. It’s often a symptom to something else, in my case an anxiety disorder. If a kid doesn’t want to be touched, then don’t effing touch them. It’s not that hard of a concept, and yet I still have relatives that will touch me when I have repeated to them over and over again. And then they get offended by it because I used to “love” being randomly hugged and kissed as a kid when I really just tolerated it and wanted it to stop.

      This is beyond letting kids understand that they can say “no, don’t touch me” when uncomfortable. It will let them understand that any contact they do not like is wrong, it will help them understand boundaries. And it will also help them understand when not to touch someone else that does not like being touched. And most importantly, it’s putting the building blocks of them being able to stop uncomfortable situations when they are older.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      I actually think this is kind of awesome, but maybe instead of making it a radical statement, you just see how the kid handles it? I didn’t need to be told as a child to hug the people I wanted to hug, so I would imagine (from my total lack of parenting experience) that it might make sense to just follow the kid’s lead.

    • JennyWren

      I think her argument is generally pretty sound. Of course, if you reduce it too “If you tell your kids they have to put up with being kissed when they don’t want to they won’t understand sexual consent!” it sounds extreme, but I think that this is a very good example of one way in which we as a society can strengthen our attitudes towards consent and bodily autonomy.
      I think a lot of young girls, in particular, are under pressure to always “be polite/nice” and to not “make a fuss,” and I know from personal experience that it can be very hard to break out of that if/when you experience harassment later in life. We cannot really expect young women to be assertive and forthright in how they deal with that behavior if they’ve spent the first 16 years of their lives being told to just put up with contact they don’t want or particularly desire.

    • Sarah

      I don’t know, I’m not a huge fan of this. My aunt raised my cousins this way, and it didn’t really bother me until one time when my cousin and I were playing at a family get together and she wanted me to chase her, so I obliged. I was about 25 and my cousin was about 3 at the time. When I caught her, I started tickling her and she was laughing and of course screaming, “No, no don’t tickle me!” My aunt happened to walk in at that moment and started yelling at me to put her daughter down and that I should respect her daughter when she said no.

      I immediately felt like a criminal, and I can’t say I’ve been very close with my cousins since this happened. Every time I want to play with them I think twice now because I don’t want to feel that way again.

      I grew up playing these games with my aunts and uncles and why else do you play the chasing game except to be caught and tickled? I know, growing up, that was my favorite part of the game. Anyway, it really rubbed me the wrong way that my own aunt was treating me like I molested her daughter, when we were just playing a game that my cousin and I were both enjoying before my aunt freaked out.

      • Alfreda Wells Morrissey

        I have been on the other end of this. I don’t tickle my kids, although my husband does. I don’t make them kiss me, although my husband does make them kiss him and his family. My kids cousins are men, and like to chase them around and tickle them. I try to let it slide until they start having one person hold her down while the other one tickles her and I can see she is clearly not having fun anymore. I will tell them, “I think she has had enough now, please let her go.” It sounds like maybe your aunt over-reacted on the moment by freaking out but I still think if a kid is telling you not to tickle them, you should respect their wishes. Tickling is a tricky thing because it makes people laugh, so nobody takes them seriously when they say to stop. You really need to watch the cues carefully. I know a lot of people have traumatic memories of tickling gone too far, perhaps your aunt is one of them. There are other ways to make kids laugh, it just takes a little more thought and creativity.

        I also find my husband’s family is big into teasing and I hate that. I try to let it go mostly, but watch my daughter’s cues and when I can see she has had enough, I tell them to back off. One of my nephews is type of person who seems incapable of picking up on these cues and just continues well past the point of humor. He doesn’t seem to get when the child is hurting and not laughing. This is they way his father raised him though. They were teased without mercy so they would develop a thick skin. I prefer to go the route of building up your child’s confidence, giving them a space where they feel safe and valued, so if they get teased at school they are confident that it is the teaser who sucks and not them. It is tricky to navigate the social graces. How do you stand up for you child, without making the family member feel like a child molester?

        At least with his parents they just insist on the french bisous, and don’t go overboard on the teasing and tickling. I don’t know how I would handle that as my husband seems not concerned by it.

        This incident is obviously affecting your relationship with your aunt and your cousin. You may want to discuss it with her. I am sure your aunt loves you and loves having you play with your cousin. I am happy my nephews love my daughters so much, I just have issue with them being held down and tickled past the point of fun. It is a power thing. I want them to feel powerful not powerless. I am sure children already feel powerless often enough in this grown up world.

    • M

      I think that sexualizing all physical contact is part of the problem. If you want to teach kids about sex and consent, teach them the difference between normal physical contact (hugging grandma) and sexual contact. Teach them about their bodies, and teach them what should be private or off-limits. Don’t confuse the issue by saying that any physical contact they don’t like is sexual abuse. Sometimes kids (and adults!) have to get a band-aid pulled off or endure a doctor’s exam or hold an adult’s hand to cross the street, and while these experiences might not be pleasurable or comfortable, they’re necessary. As we grow up we learn to take these things in our stride, without sensationalizing (or sexualizing) the experience. Because even adults don’t always have control over their bodies, but they SHOULD have control over their sexuality.