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Little girl high fiving grandfather while playing chess

Kids Don’t Have to Hug Grandma Now. Really, Girl Scouts?

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When I first saw an ABC News headline earlier this week which read, ‘Girl Scouts Warn Parents About forcing Kids to Hug Relatives for the Holidays,’ I honestly thought it was for health reasons. Perhaps grandma is susceptible to pneumonia? Perhaps your great aunt can’t get sick because they are going through chemotherapy? Maybe granddad suffers from such bad arthritis that it would hurt him to even be gently touched on the arm by your little girl? I certainly, and perhaps, naively, never expected that The Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. were warning about consent.

On their site they begin, ‘Holidays and family get-togethers are a time for yummy food, sweet traditions, funny stories, and lots and lots of love. But they could, without you even realizing it, also be a time when your daughter gets the wrong idea about consent and physical affection.’ Well, happy holidays to you! The article discusses whether our children ‘owe’ someone a hug, because they haven’t seen them in a while, or because they gave your children an amazing gift, and how it can set the stage for our little girls questioning whether she ‘owes’ other person any type of physical affection.

I went through a range of emotions reading this, from feeling sad that this—even hugging your own grandparents—is now seen as a possible negative thing all the way through to a learning lesson. I literally spit out my coffee when I read the advice on the site that said, ‘Saying how much she’s missed someone or thank you with a smile, a high-five, or even an air kiss are all ways she can express herself.’

Um, not to make a sweeping generalization about being Jewish, but a high five or an air-kiss would definitely not fly when it comes to our (sometimes) overbearing, yet oh-so-loving grandparents in my kid’s life. The Girl Scouts are asking parents to give our children the ‘space’ to decide when and how they want to show affection and that we shouldn’t force our kids to hug and kiss family members. Sigh.

Where do I begin? First, I guess my family is totally and utterly blessed. My children’s grandparents live and breathe for their grandchildren. They show up every weekend for hockey games. They gladly take the kids for overnights. If one of them notices that one of my kids needs a new pair of winter boots, they are on it like they’re personal shoppers for my kids. And, yes, they spoil my kids rotten. As they should, because they are grandparents and spoiling grandchildren is part of the job description. How do my kids show their appreciation for their grandparents who always go out of their way for them? They hug them! They tell them they love them! They hug them again!

Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist based in New York City and Sarasota, Fla., who was quoted in the ABC article, says that ‘Parents should be careful to not create ‘a mass hysteria about physical contact with loved ones,’ especially during the holiday season.’ My thoughts exactly. As parents, are we suddenly obliged to have a talk about inappropriate touching when it comes to their loved ones? That’s not to say that frequent talks about consent shouldn’t happen, but I’m just floored that it’s come to this.

When my daughter’s grandparents come to Toronto from Calgary and stay in a hotel, even at age 14, my daughter will often share a bed with her grandmother—not for lack of beds, but because they both want to cuddle together. They walk the streets holding hands. Likewise, my son’s other grandmother also likes to sleep with my five-year-old, because he likes when she tickles his back as he falls asleep.

Rowan and her grandparents

Of course, our girls need to learn about consent and when lines are crossed and if they feel uncomfortable to speak the f**k up. But it seems excessive, at least to me, that because of all the recent news of celebrities sexually harassing women, they seem to be encouraging parents to tell our children that they don’t have to hug their grandparents or give a quick peck to another relative, even if they haven’t seen them in months. Dr. Taylor added, “The awareness of unwanted contact that we have right now is needed … I just caution parents about limiting family attachment and that kind of loving space that a lot of time only happens at the holidays.” I’ve raised my children to know that family is everything. Am I really supposed to tell my daughter, ‘Oh, by the way, let’s talk about consent….Your grandparents are coming to visit!’

Yes, of course all of us mothers have at some point had to tell our children to say ‘Thank You,’ or, ‘Give Nana a hug,’  but not because we think our children ‘owe’ them a hug or kiss, but because we are good people, who are trying both to teach our kids about appreciation and how important family is, while at the same time, making sure our children’s grandparents don’t feel unloved or under-appreciated. Maybe it’s because I have such a soft spot for grandparents that it seems almost cruel to tell kids that, ‘Hey! It’s okay to just high-five the people who probably love you the most in the world and have a proven track record!’

Of course, it would be completely irresponsible not to recognize that, yes, there are episodes of sexual abuse perpetrated by family members, which is horrifying. In fact, some statistics say that up to one in three children will be sexually abused by a family member. So, yes, my children are lucky.

In my home, the three sets of grandparents would literally take a bullet for any of their grandchildren. But if I told my daughter, ‘Meh, you don’t have to hug your Bubby. Just give her an air kiss,’ not only would she break my mother’s heart, but, in my opinion, it’s just plain rude, especially when the grandparents go out of their way for them. It would break my heart too, since showing affection for those you love is extremely important for my kids to know and see.

So, yes, I do tell my five-year-old to kiss Nana goodbye. But he’s five and if he doesn’t feel like hugging her goodbye because he’s in the middle of a game, well, she understands that. But no way could I imagine myself telling my daughter to fist-bump them if she didn’t feel like it.

Luckily, my daughter loves to hug and cuddle. I just have this sick gut feeling that this is a bad road to go down. I mean, really, even if your kid hasn’t seen their great aunt in four years, what’s so wrong with telling them to give her a hug? Is it THAT insane for parents to expect our kids to give a quick hug, especially when it can make an elderly person so incredibly happy? Why does it seem suddenly that our kids are making the rules on how they should behave while us parents just have to sit back and watch them potentially be rude.

That being said, there are two sides to every story. My colleague Shannon Kelly, Editor at Help We’ve Got Kids, is also a mother and reacted to this story in a completely different way. Shannon suggested I read a book, written by safety educator Pattie Fitzgerald, called, ‘No Trespassing: This is MY Body!

Shannon told me, ‘The book helped me to open up this conversation with my 5-year-old daughter. We’ve talked about her trusting her own feelings when it comes to all kinds of touch, whether it’s hugging, kissing, tickling, playing tag. The message? ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s your grandmother, uncle, or even Mom or Dad, the most important thing is that you are in charge of your body and who gets to touch you. I think kids need to develop the confidence so that they can say no when something doesn’t feel right, even to a grown-up.’

Shannon says it’s not okay for her kids to be rude. ‘Saying ‘No, thank you’ is fine when Grandma asks for a hug. ‘But ‘Ew gross!’ is not cool’ she says. I hated to ask Shannon, who is super smart and kind, how she would feel if her daughter went to overnight camp, came back a month later, and refused to give her a hug. Shannon’s answer was, ‘Well, it might hurt my feelings but I wouldn’t force her.’ (It would crush me!)

The Girl Scouts told ABC News they offered the advice partly “in light of recent news stories about sexual harassment.” Agreed, we need to teach our girls about what’s right and wrong and especially since this conversation is so topical and horrifying. But do we really need to encourage (because that’s how I read it) them to watch out for Grandma and Grandpa and other family members who are so excited to see them?

One thing Shannon and I both did agree on was that the Girl Scout’s statement focused only on girls when this message—about consent—is just as important for boys. What do you think? Are the Girl Scouts of the USA taking this a tad too far? Or do you agree with their suggestion?

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