Why Affection and Teasing Should Be a Child’s Choice

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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In a blog posting by Lenore Skenazy, author of the best-selling book Free Range Kids, challenged an article called “Child Predators Love Polite Kids” by Pattie Fitzgerald.  Skenazy cites studies done by David Finkelhor, Ph.D., head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, indicating a lack of correlation between children being forced to hug and kiss family members and their being abused.

She writes, “…most of us grew up with that ‘Don’t kiss me with your lipstick-y mouth’ instinct and it seems to me to be one that we could suspend temporarily for the sake of good manners, even while retaining our other, self-protective instincts.”

While I understand Skenazy’s reaction to sensationalist, negative headlines, the problem is that teaching children to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. If you suspend your instincts of distaste only to take care of someone else’s feelings, where do you draw the line?

Confusion about boundaries and feelings can lead to problems such as:

  • Children getting bullied because, “It’s a game, and everyone else is having fun.”
  • Teen girls not stopping unwanted sexual behavior because, “I don’t want to disrespect him.”
  • Teens not telling adults about big problems because, “I have to be loyal to my friends.”
  • Students letting friends copy their homework because, “I just wanted to help.”
  • Adults feeling they have to loan someone money because, “She needs it, and I don’t want to let her down.”
  • Increased vulnerability to child abuse, especially if a child also doesn’t tell, because “I care about him, so I don’t want to hurt his feelings or get people upset with him.”

At Kidpower, we teach children that touch or games for play, teasing, or affection should be the choice of each person; safe; allowed by the adults in charge; and not a secret. We show how to set firm boundaries in a respectful, caring way.

In Kidpower workshops around the world for twenty years, we’ve coached literally thousands of children to practice ways to stop someone from pinching their cheeks, hugging them too tightly, or giving them sloppy kisses by cheerfully redirecting this unwanted touch to do something more acceptable to them instead.  Taking action in this way can help not only to prevent problems but also to strengthen relationships by encouraging positive, shared experiences that both people enjoy together and reducing the number of experiences where one person is enduring or tolerating another.

In one workshop I was teaching personally, a ten-year-old girl who we’ll call Mira raised her hand and asked, “Why is this important? When my grandma wants to pinch my cheeks or my uncle wants to kiss me with his scratchy beard, I just suffer through it even if I hate it!”

“What is important,” I explained, “is that you know that this is your choice, and that you have the right to choose something different.  There are many ways of showing that you care about someone and of showing respect. To be safe, affection should be enjoyable for both people, and teasing should be fun for everyone involved. When you are suffering through something someone else does, even someone you like a lot, you are not having fun, and you are not comfortable. Now, let’s practice!”

I went back and forth between pretending to be Mira’s grandma and coaching her through the following role-play.

As “Grandma”, I approached her with my cheek pinching hands reaching towards her, and I gushed, “You have gotten SO big! Oh, I just can’t wait to pinch your cute cheeks!”

With great enthusiasm, Mira jumped up to stop me. She took my hands firmly but gently to turn me in a different direction and said, “Hi, Grandma! Do you want to look at these pictures of my birthday party?”

I asked plaintively, “Can’t I pinch your cheeks?”

Mira smiled and said, “No, thank you!”

I looked sad and complained, “But you always loved it before!”

Mira explained with a sweet smile, “I’m bigger now! That’s not me anymore. Let’s just hold hands.”

Stepping back into my role of Kidpower instructor, I said, “That was very clear, and you projected a lot of confidence! Can you see how you were able to be respectful and caring while staying in charge of how you wanted to show affection?”

Mira looked thoughtful. “It feels great to know that I have a choice!” she said.


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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