We’ve all been there before, after arriving at a family gathering and your caregiver turns to you and says, “saludaste” or “ya le saludaste a tus Tio/as?” I don’t know about you, but I was pretty shy as a child. I often dreaded having to go around to all of the adults at a party and being forced to say “hi”; not because I didn’t care about my family, but because it was anxiety provoking for me and I can remember feeling so intimidated when speaking to adults. Despite my feelings, I always went around and hugged all my Tios/Tias and primos, because it was a sign of “respeto” (respect). I believe that the connotation of “making” your child hug or show physical affection to a family member is detrimental, while I understand that the intent is so important, that is to uphold the importance of family and respect, the subliminal messages that are sent to our kiddos is not to be undermined.
As a Chicana who was raised in a big Mexican family, “la Familia y el respeto” (family and respect) have always been important values for me. Supportive family connections and respect for all human beings are essential values that we should all develop. However, when we use tactics like bribing, intimidation, or aggressively suggest that our child(ren) have to give any family member affection, then we run the risk of creating a skewed understanding of what consent is. Consent means to “give permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” It is vital for our child(ren) to understand the meaning, not only so that they feel confident in consenting in their personal relationships/friendships (whether it be consenting to romantic relationships, using drugs/alcohol, or other behaviors, it is also vital that our children learn to respect the consent that other give or do not give.
Allowing children the option to consent to physical interactions with adults is critical in helping children understand healthy boundaries and in helping them to understand that they hold the power to establish healthy boundaries in their life, in all relationships. Additionally, forcing children to show physical affection to family members may also perpetuate the idea of “forced love;” the idea that despite our comfort or safety level with others, we must show them physical affection. The danger behind this is children can continue to show love and affection to people in their life (friends, partners), that perhaps are unhealthy or unsafe people, also this may perpetuate the idea that other (friends, partners, co-workers), have to show our children physical affection, despite the other person’s comfort level/safety.
With this, it is also important to listen to your child. According to the National Center for Child Abuse, 70-80% of child abuse perpetrators are someone known to the child. Additionally, 1 in 5 girls are sexually abused, and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. Please note, that these statistics are based on crimes that have been reported, so these numbers may be even higher. According to RAINN – the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, 93% of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and of that 93%, 86% of the perpetrators were parents or relatives. Now, I’m not saying that children should not respect family members or that family is unimportant, so here are some alternatives to physical interactions with family members for children:
A verbal greeting
“Being family is not what makes someone a trusted adult. Consistently honoring the consent and boundaries of children, being honest, and appropriate is what makes someone a trusted adult.”