Sunday 22 September 2019

Where's the harm in 'a little hug for your granny'?

There is a real danger in urging our children to refuse the embrace of an affectionate relative, writes Sarah Caden

Defensive: David Beckham defended kissing six-year-old daughter Harper on the lips by saying he kisses his sons similarly
Defensive: David Beckham defended kissing six-year-old daughter Harper on the lips by saying he kisses his sons similarly

Sarah Caden

Several years ago, a visiting Yank saw me tickle my child. "You still do that?" he asked incredulously.

Tickling, he explained, was abusive and aggressive and tantamount to slapping. I pointed out that the child was laughing. He pointed out that the child had not given consent either to be touched or made to laugh to the point of tears. I said a bit of tickling never did us any harm growing up. He replied that this was what people said about corporal punishment, too.

Fast-forward five years or so and I know quite a few Irish adults who agree with my American friend.

They don't tickle their children or grandchildren and hark back to how much they hated as a child the invasive nature of it and the adult ignoring of their pleas to stop. They mention consent, especially when it comes to babies who are not yet verbal.

There are probably many of us who hated being tickled when we were small, particularly by the person who did it too hard and took it too far and had a hint of anger in the mix.

For those of us, the refraining makes sense. It's the extrapolating it out into a bigger issue around a sense of body ownership and issues of consent, however, that is less clear-cut.

Of course we don't want to inflict unwanted or unpleasant physical contact on our children, but there is a danger that we are approaching a point where we question all human touch. There is no touch, it seems, that is entirely innocent. It is all fraught with fear of being at best ill-judged, at worst ill-intentioned. Children, in particular, we now approach with trepidation - and not just the children of others, but, increasingly, our own too.

We barely think twice about recording their every move in still and moving pictures and then sharing them over the entirely dodgy internet, but in real life, we worry about breaching their boundaries with tickles. And, in case you haven't heard, with hugs.

Last week in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, the Girl Scouts of the USA published an online post entitled 'Reminder: She Doesn't Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays'.

It was concerned with the way in which adults employ a go-on, go-on attitude with children at family get-togethers, coercing them to embrace grown-up relatives and friends whom they might not even know that well. Or, if they do know them, whom they are not much given to hugging.

"Think of it this way," the post went, "telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn't seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift, can set the stage for her questioning whether she 'owes' another person any type of physical affection when they've bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life."

The Girl Scouts' developmental psychologist, Dr Andrea Bastiani Archibald, added that teaching girls that they don't "owe" affection is a way of introducing issues around consent early on and is also important by way of teaching about boundaries and body-respect from a young age.

To question this advice is not to say that the sinking feeling of having to kiss a bristly-chinned great aunt or needling old uncle isn't familiar to all of us.

We all lived through that pressure from our parents to please these people with a kiss, a hug, a quizzing over our performance at school. Most of the time, it's safe to say, we didn't enjoy it. But we did it.

For the most part, there was no malice or ill-intention or sense of personal boundaries being breached.

Mostly, as children in these situations, we felt bored and utterly determined that we would never be as tedious as this lot when we were grown up.

It also taught us that while we might not be thrilled with hugging various adult friends and relations, it mattered that they were thrilled by it. And that this delight was in proportion to the age of the hugger.

Can't you feel it still? The firm grip of an elderly person, the way they seemed to have their batteries charged by contact with youth, the way they held on to your hand or your arm as they asked you about schoolwork and team sports and Santa. They were loath to let go as if holding on was stopping time from flying by quite so fast.

Obviously, as children, we couldn't get away quickly enough from the ageing relatives because such is life, but that did not mean that they were breaching our boundaries in any way.

Some would say that it is this kind of forced physical contact that causes girls, in particular, to grow up acquiescent and people-pleasing.

They might say that it's this kind of thing that leads to the stories we hear through #MeToo, ranging from full-on sexual assault to a daily inability to say "Back off".

To tell little girls that they should tell their granny to back off from a hug is a bridge too far, though, surely?

Tainting an innocent hug with sexual or bullying overtones is the path to demonising all physical contact, and that will leave us in a sorry place.

Already, we have seen the likes of David Beckham lambasted for posting online pictures of himself kissing his six-year-old daughter Harper on the lips. It was basically suggested that this is a sexual-type kiss and inappropriate and confusing for the child.

Beckham defended himself quite plainly by saying he kisses his sons similarly and that his wife does too and that this is how they were raised.

He did not defend his love for his child or the innocence of that love, nor should he have felt the need to.

But we are getting to that stage - while, on the other hand, we are unfazed by children's underwear departments selling bralets for six-year-olds emblazoned with their favourite cartoon characters.

We also think little of how we are teaching our children, through our frantic photographic habits, that it's good to pose, important to pose, crucial to have our images liked and shared and approved by people we know and don't know.

So, it's important to be liked, but to show love in the most basic, innocent hug is slipping in value.

Sunday Independent

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