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A forced kiss sends wrong message to kids

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Updated: February 24, 2014 12:28PM

Lucy Emmerson, a leading sex researcher in Britain, recently made headlines when she decried the common practice of encouraging — or outright forcing — kids to kiss or embrace their adult relatives.

Many people took issue with Emmerson’s claims, particularly those who have a difficult time understanding why teaching kids to embrace their loved ones is so wrong. Critics wondered: Is a harmless goodbye kiss for Grandma now the equivalent of sexual abuse?

No, it is not the equivalent of sexual abuse. However, forcing a child to kiss an adult (or another child) against their will inadvertently gives the child the message that they don’t have complete autonomy over their own body. It teaches them to ignore their gut instincts of “No, this feels wrong” and to pucker up anyway, just to be polite. It puts adults’ wants ahead of the child’s needs, and it makes keeping the peace and creating a “harmonious” family environment more important than the child’s feelings of value and security.

More importantly, you are telling them that it is OK for physical contact to be coerced, even forced. Not only can this increase their risk of victimization, it could inadvertently increase their likelihood of victimizing. They might think it’s OK to play rough with their friends or to bestow kisses and unwanted touching on playmates even after they say “no,” and they might not understand that getting permission before they touch someone is an absolutely crucial part of social behavior.

As Emmerson correctly stated, teaching kids about consent starts from age zero. That doesn’t mean your child has to be rude or refuse to say goodbye to loved ones. But if he or she doesn’t want to kiss, you can suggest they give a high-five, a wave or even a fist bump instead. And, encourage them to always ask playmates before engaging in physical contact, such as by saying, “Ask Sophia if she wants a hug before you give her one,” and by modeling it yourself, such as by saying, “Can I give you a kiss and a hug right now?”

Give your children the power to set boundaries around their desire for physical contact, and teach them the importance of valuing those boundaries in other people as well. It doesn’t mean Grandma won’t get kisses anymore, it just means she will get ones that actually come from the heart rather than from a place of anger and shame.

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