Parents are right to insist that grandparents ask before giving a hug.
Marilyn hadn’t seen her granddaughter in six months. “I was so eager to scoop her up and plant kisses all over that chubby face!” she told me. “But as soon as I got there, my son told me I couldn’t hug her until she gave me permission. I was floored! Since when do grandmothers need the permission of a toddler to show them how much they love them?”
Welcome to another growing trend: body autonomy, also called bodily autonomy. Insisting that you ask for permission before hugging your grandchild may seem like another way for your grandchild’s parents to frustrate you, but they’ve got extremely good reasons for this request.
Body autonomy is the idea that each person has a right to decide what happens to their body without coercion or influence by anyone else. It’s important that children be taught to understand this concept from the earliest age. Why is body autonomy important for children? Because a child who feels in control of their body is less likely to become a victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault. They are less likely to become a victim of intimate partner violence later in life. And children who know they are in charge of their bodies are more likely to share any abuse or violation that may happen to them.
The sexual abuse of children is a difficult subject to talk about, and one we all hope (and assume) won’t happen to our loved ones. The reality is that it happens with alarming frequency. According to a 2014 study, one in every three females and one in every 20 males will experience unwanted sexual contact by the time they turn 18.* Sadly, the assailant is someone the child knows and trusts in the majority of cases. Teaching children about body autonomy is a powerful way to protect them.
While grandparents should be the greatest advocates for our children learning about bodily autonomy, we are instead among the greatest offenders. We swoop in for the hug, insist on the kiss, hold them tight when they try to squirm away. Whether we see them daily or once a year, we crave their affection and expect them to return the physical displays of our love for them. In doing so, we are teaching them that they must yield their bodies to other people’s requests.
We teach them in other ways, too, saying “Give your sister a hug to say you’re sorry” or “It’s okay, he just keeps poking you to get your attention.” In ways big and small, we are repeatedly telling them that they don’t have the ability or privilege to make choices about their own bodies.
Instead, we need to make sure our grandchildren get the message that their bodies are theirs to control, and that they can always decide how others touch it. They need to know that people who love them will always respect that, and that anyone who doesn’t is not a friend. They need to know we won’t ever force them to do something they don’t like or ask them to do something don’t feel comfortable doing. We need to make sure they understand that if anyone expects them to submit to unwanted physical contact, their entire family supports their right to say no.
Once Marilyn’s son explained the reasons behind his seemingly crazy request, she was happy to comply. “It all made sense once he educated me!” And while her granddaughter did not want hugs for the first two days of her visit, by the third day she was running to Marilyn for affection all day long. “It was hard to wait for her to warm up to me, but if it will keep her safe as she grows up, I’m so glad I did.”
*Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2014). The lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse and sexual assault assessed in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 329-333.
More in our “What Grandparents Need to Know” series:
Skin-to-Skin Contact After Birth
What's Baby-led Weaning?