Child Predators Love Polite Kids?

Hi Readers: So here’s a “helpful” article on how to keep our kids safe from predators. It cites the oft-repeated notion that when we make our kids hug or kiss relatives, the kids get the message that from now on they must submit to any and all skeevy and revolting requests adults make of them.

To me this seems like a giant leap. I never liked kissing my aunts and I sure hated the lipstick smudges they’d leave on my cheeks,  but I don’t think that gave me an, “I guess from now on I’m jailbait” mentality, either. This just seems like one more, “Watch out!” article that gets parents worried without actually giving them something sensible to do.

What IS sensible? DO teach your kids to be polite. And then do what David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, suggests, in terms of keeping kids safe from abuse: Teach them to understand, avoid and report it. In other words, teach them “good touch/bad touch,” starting as early as age 3 or 4. Let them know that if anyone touches them in a disturbing way,  or asks them to do something that feels wrong or upsetting, they can say no. AND they can (and should) tell you what happened, even if the other adult says not to. AND you won’t be mad. Let kids know: It’s not their fault.

By the way, Finkelhor said he has seen no correlation between kids made to hug their relatives and kids who get abused. Neither has Amy Baxter, a pediatrician who did a fellowship in child abuse and teaches other doctors about it. Both agree, however, that if your child does express real distress about hugging or kissing someone in particular, there is no need to force them to do it. Once the person is gone, just ask your child some open-ended questions — “Can you tell me why you feel this way?” — to see if anything is going on.

The “Predators Love Polite Kids” piece I’ve linked to assumes that when we are teaching our children to generally be polite we are also turning a deaf ear to any of their pointed protests or hesitations. But we aren’t. It also assumes we are squelching all their instincts. But most of us grew up with that, “Don’t kiss me with your lipstick-y mouth!” instinct and it seems to be one that we could suspend temporarily, for the sake of good manners,  even while retaining our other, self-protective instincts. And even while retaining an open line of communication with our parents.

The leap from kissing grandpa to being molested seems like a truism that we’ve just gotten used to parroting. — Lenore

43 Responses

  1. This is such a valid point. I want to flag up a really good children’s charity in Britain called Kidscape http://www.kidscape.org.uk/ .

    It provides super advice for parents and teaching materials that help children understand what’s OK and not OK in terms of contact and healthy relationships.

  2. I HATE that title but I actually agree with a lot in the article. I am a big believer in teaching kids to listen to their instincts and that includes not forcing them to hug or kiss someone who makes them uncomfortable. This is part of the training to be Free-Range in my house.

  3. I know I never cared for hugs from male relatives as a child. I couldn’t care less about lipstick. Can’t really tell why, but even today, I’m not a “huggy” person.
    I know this sounds looney, but if children have a hard time hugging and kissing, then maybe now is the time to teach them the art of the firm handshake? It is an indispensable grown-up skill, after all.
    Relatives will be delighted at the precociousness of it and children won’t feel as though their personal space has been invaded….

  4. Yep to Mae Mae – and for kids that are being abused by that person and not telling – yeesh. My youngest wouldnt let my mother hold him for the longest time, and she was cool with that. She remembered hating to being told to hug and kiss someone. (And we don’t do that to adults, do we?)
    We taught our kids that in our house we don’t keep secrets – we have surprises. That it is okay to not be touched by people you don’t want to be touched by and if anyone wants to touch you or be touched where your bathing suit covers, that is not okay without your permission and without mommy or daddy knowing. I made doctors ask permission. Without going into too much detail, we know that this definitely worked with our kids.

  5. I don’t think you should make kids hug and kiss other people because I don’t think it’s fair to them to insist that they break their own private boundaries of personal space. So long as they’re polite, that’s fine with me.

  6. What Uly said. Saying hello and goodbye politely (as appropriate to age group)? Mandatory. Hugging and kissing people you only see maybe twice a year? Not so much. For older kids it’s different, of course, but really little kids often can’t remember back far enough to recognize someone they see rarely, so it actually is almost like having to hug and kiss a total stranger. (Almost. Not quite.)

    I’m not 100% sold on a connection between being required to hug lipsticky relatives and being unusually vulnerable to sexual abuse. But I do think *part* of teaching kids “understand, avoid and report” is having some respect for , as Uly says, their personal space and private boundaries. (This is also one of the reasons I think spanking kids is not a good idea. But let’s maybe not open that particular can of worms right now.)

  7. I agree that children should not be forced to hug, kiss, or be touched if they don’t want to. Kids should be able to control their bodies. Just because they are small and cute doesn’t give adults the right to manhandle them.

    Many people especially woman allow others to walk all over them in the name of being polite. We need to teach children the difference between being polite and being a doormat. How to say no politely is an important lesson to learn. When to stop being polite and start screaming no is also a lesson that needs to be learned by kids.

    We talk here about independence. How is a child independent if we make them submit to being hugged? I am NOT a touchy feely person. As a fairly young child my father taught me how to turn a hug into a handshake. It is a tactic I still use.

  8. Whether it leads to abuse or not, I think it’s wrong to force a child to give affection to anyone they are not comfortable giving affection to. Our physical affection is a gift, not an obligation nor something that should be demanded of us. I think we should teach our children to be polite, but that doesn’t always mean you have to hug or kiss people you don’t want to.

    You own your body. That’s an important lesson.

  9. I’m of the school that thinks making your kids hug and kiss their relatives when they don’t want to is just plain rude to the kids. Insisting on politeness and making sure your kids know and understand your cultural norms is one thing, but insisting on specific behaviors because it pleases someone else – regardless of the kid’s desires – seems, well, a bit uptight to me.

    But I think Lenore’s point is that regardless of whether or not you would personally make you’re kids kiss grandpa, the modern parenting wisdom that doing so is one step towards teaching your kid to be a victim just doesn’t hold up. If you think that granny’s feelings are more important – that’s OK. You’re choosing between your kid’s and parent’s feelings, not you’re parent’s feelings and a life time of sexual abuse for your kid.

  10. At least the article centres on “Uncle Johnny” as the likely predator and not a stranger who sneaks into the backyard at random.

  11. I’d say that it seems like it’s the predator takes advantage of the parent rather than the child (there’s a letter at alphamom about “creepy carl” that refers to this directly). “oh go and hug your uncle carl!”
    I don’t think we need to go into child abuse to use this as a teaching point wrt boundaries– things that come in handy later on with teenage and adult encounters with the overly physical/ forward. How to avoid the banally awkward, not even scary or dangerous, day after unwanted physical intimacy (even if it’s just a kiss).

  12. Why can’t people use some common sense? Don’t want to hug creepy Uncle Lou who you see pretty often? Fine. But get your butt over and give Great-aunt Mildred a kiss, since she is likely to DIE before we see her again.

    The ONLY relatives that we hugged and kissed good-bye were those who we never saw anyway.

    I think the whole idea that this somehow makes kids more vulnerable is just silly.

  13. Thank you for this site. I am so sick and tired of my kids laying on the couch because I can’t take them to the park. You have inspired me to start a group in my neighborhood to get kids out to play. Kind of like a neighborhood watch, not a neighborhood “Hover”.

    Any ideas on how I can get my city to help out?

  14. Much more than ‘Hug great-aunt Stella’, who was weird and kinda scary (learned later we visited her in the mental institution…), what I didn’t like was, ‘Obey your elders! You do what the grown-ups tell you to do! Don’t give me any sass about it, young lady! You do as you’re told!” That whole, grown-ups know better, you listen to them, and you obey them, because they have authority over you that so many kids are, I think, still subjected to is, IMO, far more dangerous than ‘Go hug *insert name/relationship*’ while the parent stands by making sure the little mongrel complies. It’s a broad expectation rather than a situational family duty. And let’s face that too… all of us have to contend with some things we’d rather not in the name of family duty and unity.

  15. I worry that the next generation of children will be so paranoid about other people that it will stop them forming any sort of healthy relationships. If we are telling them that all men may be creepy perverts who are they going to marry??

  16. If we are telling them that all men may be creepy perverts who are they going to marry??

    Women?

  17. I was taught growing up that what other people wanted was always more important than what I wanted, that I always had to be nice, agreeable, pleasant, passive, submissive, in order to please others. Because of that I ended up in some bad situations when I was older. I think it’s really great to teach children that they don’t always have to be polite if they feel like they are in an uncomfortable situation; realizing that I didn’t always have to be nice was (weirdly, I know) a major breakthrough for me.

  18. I think a lot of us are missing that being polite doesn’t have to include physical intimacy. I think it’s important to teach children as early as they can walk and talk how to say hello and goodbye properly.

    You can teach your child to walk over and say “Goodbye Aunt Mildred, it was nice to see you.” That’s polite and there’s no forced kissing involved.

  19. I was a complete brat and never got snatched. Irritated my parents, lemme tell ya!

  20. Krista – I don’t think that’s the point at all. I think a lot of people are missing the fact that simply insisting your kids kiss auntie Mildred is not the same as telling your kids they have to always please others, always obey adults, or always accept a kiss.

    It’s telling them that when we say goodbye to family we kiss chastely. It’s no more akin to a sexual kiss than a handshake is to a grope. If you’re also teaching good touch/bad touch there’s no reason to think that insisting on a goodbye kiss will increase the chances of your kids being victimized.

    I’m not saying that people *should* insist that their kids kiss family – I don’t intend to. I’m just saying as a parenting choice it is not going to lead to sexual abuse.

  21. Based on my observations of modern children, I really don’t think we have to worry too much about this generation suffering from an excess of politeness or an excess of deference to their elders.

  22. Ha ha, Sky! Maybe that’s why crime rates are down. A shortage of the polite kids that predators want. We should ask the author about that.

    I agree that the leap this author makes between having to kiss an uncle and automatically then being set up for sexual abuse is wacky. Once again, it’s someone trying to oversimplify a complicated matter.

  23. Yes, of course you should teach your children to put Aunt Mildred’s feelings over their own (assuming we are talking about a lack of enthusiasm for a simple hug, not a concern about genuine creepy behavior.) For one thing, it’s your job to teach your kids to defer to other people’s feelings in ordinary matters, it’s not your job to teach Aunt Mildred that. And, Aunt Mildred is a grownup who is no longer subject to being taught such things anyway — children still have to learn it. If Aunt Mildred hasn’t learned it by now, she’s not going to, from you. You have a responsibility to your kids.

    I’m with helenquine — regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea to make your children kiss their relatives, making this a “training ground for victims” thing is just ridiculous.

  24. Carol the longwinded – yep, spot on to what we have done as well

    crystalblue – exactly, I don’t know how many adults I have dealt with that don’t know how to say no. They think they have to be polite, and end up doing things or getting into situations that are uncomfortable or dangerous. The best gift my mom ever gave me was teaching me how to say ‘no’ without any excuse or explanation. It’s your right.

    I do not like hugs and kisses and have had to tell more than one person “no” (yes, as an adult) when they tried to hug me when I was not comfortable with it. And I’m not talking about a bar or something, I’m talking about people at church or other situations where they figure that since “we’re all family” they can hug whomever they like.

    I will not hug or kiss a child who says no or is reluctant when mom says “give auntie a hug” or whatever. If the child is not immediately happy to do so, I shake my head at mom and say “no, that’s okay” and give the child a friendly hello or goodbye with a smile and a wave.

    My son does not have to hug or kiss anyone he doesn’t want to; but that was never a problem with him. His problem was always that he wanted to hug or kiss pretty young ladies that he didn’t know. Oy! Lots of lessons on appropriate affection with that one . . . !

  25. I’m all for letting kids pick who they hug and kiss, but beyond that, the article has it wrong. Pushing your kids to hug and kiss relatives isn’t going to make the creepy relative pick that child as a target.

  26. Sooo, totally agree, AND many experts and the newest research after “good touch bad touch” says it is not a good idea to put the responsibility on kids to say “no” and stop the abuse! They are saying “no” to someone bigger than them, and almost always, someone they know and trust, friends and family (if not someone that their parents have told them to listen to!)

    It is the responsibility of adults to keep our kids safe. Teach kids that if something happens (be specific, kids don’t know what “disturbing” means, and “funny” means tickling) they should tell their guardian (or other guardian, if one is the abuser as is statistically often the case) immediately, and that we will BELIEVE them, which parents often don’t do. (Kids only lie about abuse to say it DIDN’T happen, when lies are told… rarely rarely ever to say it did happen when it didn’t.) It is OUR job to keep them safe, and we will protect them.

    I don’t want my child to feel she needs to protect herself against adults. What a scary thought.

  27. I have yet to tell my kids to hug or kiss anyone… Even though it is customary over here to greet someone kissing the air, a “hullo” or “bye” looking straight in the face should be good enough for anyone. Anyway, it’s normally the kids who throw themselves on top of their “victim” and bury him in a blizzard of kisses, yells, pinches and gropings. No need for me to ask anything.

  28. Personally, my policy with other people’s children–even nieces and nephews–is to ask if I can have a hug. If the child says no, I’m fine with that. One of my friends has children who, on first meeting me, preferred to shake my hand. That’s fine, too–it’s perfectly polite! But I think that the child should get to choose what he or she is comfortable with, and I always let them know that I’m fine with whatever the decision may be.

  29. This may be besides the point, but speaking as a childhood sexual abuse victim, I hated hugs. Still hate them. As a child my parents would get upset when I wouldn’t want to hug or be touched and it made me feel horrible. At that time (late 80’s, early 90’s) I don’t think people correlated that behavior with someone who has been abused, but maybe now parents would know to ask questions into why their kid is avoid physical contact.

  30. I didn’t force my daughter to hug and kiss relatives when she was very young, and it caused some tension, because her father’s family is from a culture in which showing respect to your elders is very important. But, she was uncomfortable with it, so she didn’t have to. I do ask her to at least give hugs now, because at 11 she’s old enough to understand that there are things we do to be polite — and “we” includes me, because I’m not all that wild about kissing Auntie So-and-So either.

  31. I was born and brought up in a not-terribly-huggy part of the country, but I now live in New Orleans where hugging and kissing the cheek – even among colleagues – is common. Passing the peace in my church takes 10-15 minutes because we are so social and huggy. I don’t really see this as providing an opportunity for sexual predators and, in fact, I think the social aspect is a benefit. We’re close and we look out for one another.

  32. I actually know the author of that article and she is an excellent safety expert. I know that from my own experience from writing articles, you can write a fine article that is totally sane and then the media outlet will slap some crazy attention getting title on it! I cannot tell you how many times I have had some media outlet put some “STRANGER DANGER” title on one of my articles or as a lead in to an interview… and we are the pied pipers of anti stranger danger. Another thing to remember is spacing. Some well intentioned editor may edit the crap out of your article to fit their format.
    The bottom line is: Kids should get to chose who they show affection to, just like adults get to chose. Kids with confidence and empowerment over their bodies ARE less likely to become victims.

  33. on the flip side, I grew up in a not very huggy-kissy family. we did so occasionally, but it was never required, or was much of a goodbye tradition, which led to some awkward moments when I reached for a hug and/or kiss and caught the person off guard (like my mother). In contrast, I went through a phase when I was about three where i kissed just about every male I encountered as remotely family, such as my uncle’s friend. I think i remember that incident so well because i knew in the moment that I had crossed a line. that may have been the end of that.

    now, for the sake of politeness, I let my five year old niece kiss me on the mouth (yuck!). I occasionally get around it by holding my daughter so i can’t bend over for the kiss, so I’ll kiss my hand then pat my niece’s lips. (kiss by transference?)
    I’m quite sure people in the long list of comments have said this: but touch is a matter of trust. I would say that kisses and hugs are earned, they’re a mark of affection and family intimacy. “You are a member of this circle,” it says, since children quickly learn that they do not hug and kiss everybody (at least in America). If someone new is brought into the family, such as a fiancee, it would make sense (in my mind) not to force the child to physically accept the person until they understand that this person is now family..that’s a concept that may be valuable for children to figure out on their own.

  34. Polite is relative. My family always hugs everyone goodbye, always has. The grownups don’t get overly upset if a kid doesn’t want to give a hug, but really, it rarely came up. It was just what we did – leaving a party, you give everyone a hug. We saw some of our relatives so seldom, it was just the natural thing to do. At other people’s houses, hugging is less prevalent, so I take the cues from others. I guess I don’t have a real understanding for not wanting the contact, and also for getting bent out of shape if someone doesn’t want a hug. Go with the flow.

  35. I think the authors of the “Predators Love Polite Kids” piece confuse the terms “docile” and/or “compliant” with “polite”.

  36. Would you force an adult to kiss anyone? Then why would you force a child?

    We should respect kids’ boundaries and teach them to respect others’ boundaries.

  37. Hugging and kissing may be optional, but being polite is not. I am so tired of the rude me-first attitiude of the world. It wears on a person just to go out in public these days. People push you on the street and act like they have a right to behave like apes. You don’t have to let other’s run over you, but yes you do have to be nice. Absolutely nothing freeing about rudeness to others.

  38. I actually agree with the article. It’s much more important to give our kids the skills they need to prevent abuse by relatives/friends than strangers. And the skills they need are an ability to stand up for their own personal space, their own instincts. And particularly for girls, knowing that you don’t have to hug or kiss someone just to “be nice” is a lifelong lesson. I’ve had my father-in-law claim that I’m lacking in affection when I refuse his “cuddles”; frankly he is just a lech, and I’m totally within my rights to tell him I don’t want him touching me. So I would no more force my kids to hug a relative they don’t want to than I would force myself.

  39. What Sonya said!

  40. My parents never made us hug anyone. My mom has told me about several fights it started in her family. But when I was little(like, until I was 4) I wouldn’t go anywhere near my grandpa and it really hurt his feelings. Then one day we went to his house and it was FULL of people I didn’t know. He was the first person I recognized, so I ran and hid in his lap for the whole party and we were best friends after that.

    I’m so glad my parents didn’t force me to hug anyone, and let me pick up on it in my own time. I’m now the hugginest person you’ll ever meet, and I love to snuggle my family, even my in-laws. But no way am I ever going to force my daughter to hug or kiss someone.

    I used to spend a week at my grandma’s during each summer, and I remember once she asked me to go get her a glass of water. In my house, if mom or dad asked you to do something, it wasn’t an ask. It was a tell. So I got up and started heading to the kitchen and I guess she saw my eyes roll because she called me back and said, “You know, it’s ok for you to say no to people.” Oh my heck, that was the most liberating thing I’ve ever heard!

    I taught some of the teenage girls in my church for a while, and some of them were getting to the age where they were getting ready to start dating. I had a long sit down with them and explained you don’t have to be polite or nice to someone who is making you uncomfortable. I remember more than one date where a guy tried to put his hand somewhere inappropriate, and I was too polite to tell him to knock it off. I had a few of their moms come up to me afterward and thank me for being so blunt. They said they’d told their daughters that, but never got through and there was something about someone else saying it that gave it credibility. So my point here, is if you have a relationship with kids besides your own where you feel like it’s appropriate to talk about these things, do. Sometimes they need to hear it from someone not a parent.

    I’ve already started on my 6 year-old niece. (What do you do if a boy tries to kiss you and you don’t want him to? Yell at him to knock it off!)

  41. I agree with Sarah, teaching kids how to give someone a firm handshake as a greeting is a great social skill. One of my child’s grandparents insists on a hug whenever they meet and my child often refuses, which has sometimes led to hurt feelings and is uncomfortable for me.

    I still remember as a kid one of my uncles would always pick me up by my feet and turn me upside down whenever I saw him. I dreaded going over his house because of this. He finally stopped doing this when I got too big.

    My grandmother, on the other hand, would just pat me on the head as a greeting and way of saying goodbye. I liked this a lot more.

    Overall, I agree that kids shouldn’t be forced to hug and kiss anyone (even their parents) if they don’t want to.

  42. When I was a kid, certain relatives asked for a kiss & hug, and it was understood that you didn’t say no. That would be one of my grannies and a few similar-aged folks. I don’t know what my mom would have done if I’d refused; I felt it was what granny wanted, and it felt bad to disappoint granny. Other than that, we weren’t a huggy family, and I’ve never been big on being touched.

    My mom will say her first kid (1st of 6) did not like her, hated being held by her, was happiest lying alone in bed. (He is not autistic, just very independent.) Second kid was super clingy; fourth was super kissy; the other 3 were somewhere in between. Maybe that is why my mom doesn’t seem to have any particular expectations that all children will run up and kiss her. Thank goodness, I don’t have that to worry about.

    My kids were adopted around age 1, so “forced” affection never felt like a good idea even between them and me. I had to respect how they were feeling, and it was a while before I could take their affection for granted. This may be why I don’t feel comfortable “forcing” them to touch or endure touch if they don’t want it. There have been some folks from other cultures who were taken aback by this, and I’m sorry about that, but I still don’t feel like forcing them. They do need to learn how to offer alternative gestures of respect and kindness. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t; were working on it.

    For me, it isn’t about child abuse at all. Just respecting the individual person that each is.

  43. Great post! Thanks, dude!

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