Kissing Grandparents and Consent

It has been reported that the co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum in the UK has advocated that parents ought to refrain from forcing their child to kiss a grandparent against their will, since this could lead to confusion over sexual consent. Kate Emmerson claims that children should be taught that their bodies are their own from “age zero”, and that the practice of forcing children to kiss a relative against their will is in tension with this message.

Emmerson’s comments follow the publication of results from a survey carried out by the forum suggesting that almost one in three young people do not learn about consent at school and even less learn about good and bad behaviour in relationships. Whilst it is clear this is a lamentable state of affairs, we may question whether Emmerson’s proposal is a suitable response to these findings.

Emmerson’s comments have received a mixed reception. Much of the criticism has been aimed at Emmerson’s implicit assumption that children who are persuaded to kiss close relatives are more at risk of being sexually exploited later. Critics have suggested that this is an unsubstantiated empirical claim, and one that is probably false. For instance, Norman Wells, director of the conservative Family Education Trust, remarked:

Even if the distinction is lost on the Sex Education Forum, children and young people are able to recognise that there is all the difference in the world between self-consciously – and perhaps on occasion reluctantly – kissing an uncle or aunt on the cheek on the one hand, and accepting unwanted sexual advances on the other.

However, another line of objection to Emmerson’s proposal can be made by considering some potential negative consequences of its implementation. In the remainder of this post, I shall briefly sketch a few possibilities.

Whilst loving parents will often wish to try and fulfill their child’s desires, this is not the case for every desire that their child has. For instance, most 5 year old children strongly hold the desire not to go to school; however, parents normally feel quite comfortable in overriding the child’s opinion on this matter. They will send the child to school because they believe that it will be in the child’s best interests in the long run.   It seems plausible to claim that in many cases, parents might appeal to a similar justification in order to override their child’s desire not to kiss their grandparent. Even if a child does not want to do so, the parent may have good grounds for believing that the child’s kissing their grandparent will be beneficial, insofar as sharing appropriate levels of affection with other family members can not only serve to strengthen that relationship, but also contribute to the child’s own social development.  However, the child will surely be unaware of all this when they form an aversion to kissing their grandparent. In such circumstances, it seems that forcing a child to kiss their grandparent might be a case of a parent’s fostering their child’s social development, rather than an attempt to merely ‘keep up appearances’.

In considering Emmerson’s proposal, we should also consider the reasons why children may not want to kiss their grandparents. Of course there can be many reasons for this. Some children are just naturally shy and wary of showing affection; as I suggested above, in some such cases, parents might be justified in overriding their child’s desires in order to foster their social development (although of course, there are limits to this). However, it seems plausible to suppose that some children’s reasons for not wanting to kiss their grandparents could be more questionable. For instance, consider a child who does not want to kiss their grandparent because they don’t want to kiss ‘an old person’, or because it is ‘uncool’, or because of the grandparent’s physical appearance. In these cases, it seems that acquiescing to the child’s desire is to encourage an undesirable view in the child; again, it seems that parents can be justified in wanting to discourage this in their children.

Finally, we should not ignore the message that Emmerson’s proposal sends to the grandparents themselves. Should we accuse the grandmother who kisses her grandson unexpectedly of battery, or even sexual assault? Whilst this is not implied by Emmerson’s proposal, (nor, I presume, would she endorse it), I can quite understand how her proposal could engender fear of such accusations amongst grandparents; and this can only be to the detriment of their having a normal human relationship with their grandchildren. This indicates a more general point. In seeking to protect children from sexual abuse, which is of course of paramount importance, we should also be wary of the harms that we could be causing to them and others in some of our attempts to provide protection. This point was illustrated by Esther Rantzen, the founder of ChildLine, in a recent experiment. In the experiment, two child actors, a seven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, were left alone in a London shopping mall and told to act distressed while hidden cameras observed how many people offered them assistance. A total of 1,817 people walked past the children, but only 5 did something to help. Moreover, the five adults who did stop all admitted that they had been worried that they would be seen as suspicious.

The desire to protect children from sexual abuse, and to teach them about the nature of consent is admirable, and we should all support the efforts that are being made in this regard. However, in protecting children in this way, we need not safeguard what may simply be an immature aversion to their elders, and we should not protect them to the extent that precludes adults and children alike from developing  normal healthy relationships.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

7 Responses to Kissing Grandparents and Consent

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “For instance, consider a child who does not want to kiss their grandparent because they don’t want to kiss ‘an old person’, or because it is ‘uncool’, or because of the grandparent’s physical appearance. In these cases, it seems that acquiescing to the child’s desire is to encourage an undesirable view in the child; again, it seems that parents can be justified in wanting to discourage this in their children.”

    Since familial kissing is supposed to be an expression of affection (and has no apparent meaning otherwise), what on Earth would be the point in forcing a child to kiss a relative they don’t want to kiss, whatever their reasons may be? And what relative would actually WANT to be kissed by a child who doesn’t want to kiss them? What possible satisfaction could it give them (unless they are indeed sadistic paedophiles)?

    “children and young people are able to recognise that there is all the difference in the world between self-consciously – and perhaps on occasion reluctantly – kissing an uncle or aunt on the cheek on the one hand, and accepting unwanted sexual advances on the other”.

    Not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense. We’re talking about very young children here, the ones who are traditionally expected to kiss their visiting relatives. If they’re taught that kissing someone who wants to be kissed is a social obligation, regardless of whether or not they want to, and that rejecting such kissing is “naughty”, then that’s a nice bit of grooming already done for any paedo that comes along (and let’s not forget that most sexual abuse is committed by family members). An adult intent on long-term sexual abuse will of course start with something seemingly innocent like an unsolicited kiss on the cheek, and finding timid compliance will then advance to kissing on the lips and so on, with each step carefully reinforcing the child’s learned sense of social obligation and deference to adult authority.

    I’m surprised that there’s really any debate about this “issue” at all. Intimate expressions of affection should clearly be a matter of choice, or they’re not expressions of affection at all. There can be no meaningful point in forcing children to kiss someone or accept kisses that they don’t want, except to make grooming easier for sexual abusers.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      What dangerous nonsense, indeed!
      Children should always be brought up never to shake hands with anyone (all physical contact has an obvious latent sexuality and is thus a form of grooming for sexual exploitation)
      They should never say « thank you » for a present that has not given them pleasure (children should learn that adults always try to buy sexual favours – and besides, hypocrisy is really a dreadful sin). They should always refuse to be given a bath by aunty Flo or grandad (as it is obvious that they are all obviously latent paedophiles).
      Nor should they ever be taken to art galleries and be thus exposed to nude portraits. They should never see a mother breast-feeding or have pets capable of reproducing; and the piano legs should always be decently covered…

      In short, I agree that it’s astonishing that there could be a debate about this issue at all.

      • Nikolas Schaffer says:

        Congratulations for completely missing the point, as an alarming number of people are doing in regard to this issue. No-one – no-one at all – has suggested that children should “never” kiss relatives. What we’re saying is that children should kiss relatives if they want to (and if the relatives want to be kissed), and be free to refuse to kiss relatives if they don’t want to. The issue is a simple and straightforward one of consent, but this appears to be beyond your comprehension. As I said above:

        Intimate expressions of affection should clearly be a matter of choice, or they’re not expressions of affection at all.

        If you genuinely have an argument with that, feel free to articulate it. But please don’t try to insinuate that I have anything against genuine expressions of affection.

        • Anthony Drinkwater says:

          Yes, there are genuine arguments : Jonny gave three for his proposition (to which you replied : “Not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense.”)
          I disagree with you, just as I would disagree if you’d written that children should say “thank you” to relatives if they wanted to and be free to refuse to if they didn’t.
          The issue is not a « simple and straightforward one of consent », as you suggest, but one of social education. It’s also about helping children acquire a healthy attitude to affection and displays of affection – the exact opposite of paedophilia.

          Having said that, let’s not lose our sense of reality :
          1. I agree that it’s unhelpful to use the word « forced » in talking about bringing up children and I would not want to suggest punishing children for not kissing their relatives any differently than for not having sent their thank-you letters. It’s a question of parental education.
          2. I’m sure it is exceedingly rare : I can’t recall ever having to encourage my children to kiss their aunts, cousins, grandparents… (But I did sometimes have to insist that they write their thank-you letters….)

          • Nikolas Schaffer says:

            “I would not want to suggest punishing children for not kissing their relatives any differently than for not having sent their thank-you letters.”

            The fact that you would want to punish them at all for not wanting to kiss someone strikes me as bizarre. And again, why on earth would grandma (or anyone else) want a kiss from a child who doesn’t want to kiss them? What kind of psychology is at work there? I can’t fathom it.

            “It’s also about helping children acquire a healthy attitude to affection and displays of affection”

            Huh? You’re the one insisting that children kissing relatives should not be a matter of affection at all, it should be about their duty to do as they’re told and show “good manners” towards adults, whether or not they’re in an affectionate frame of mind.

            And “punishing” a child in these circumstances is in obvious conflict with the parental duty of teaching children that their bodies are their own, that they shouldn’t feel obliged to engage in physical intimacy with anyone unless they really want to, that they shouldn’t feel they’re being “naughty” if they say “no’ to an adult who demands such intimacy. You can’t expect a small child to realise that an entirely different ethics is in place when they’re “punished” for not kissing a relative, than would be the case if they then chose to exercise autonomy over their own bodies when “cuddled” by another relative (or the same one) who turns out to be a paedophile.

            • Anthony Drinkwater says:

              Sorry about my careless wording, Nikolas : I should have used « recommend » instead of « suggest ». More seriously I should have written « any more than I would recommend punishing them » instead of « any differently than ».
              The sentence should thus read :
              “I would not want to recommend punishing children for not kissing their relatives any more than I would recommend punishing them for not having sent their thank-you letters.”
              I hope that this is now clear enough for it to be obvious that I don’t hold the views you ascribe to me. However, I still maintain that it is healthy to encourage both behaviours, for the reasons that Jonny gives.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Surely the point is that strongly encouraging children to demonstrate consideration/affection/politeness towards others, including elderly relatives, is part of teaching them that other people’s interest matter about as much as their own. But that needn’t require an instrument as blunt as compulsion. To my way of thinking, *forcing* a child to kiss an elderly relative is clumsy parenting in the same way that *forcing* a child to play soccer or learn the cello is clumsy parenting. There’s a range of ways of encouraging behaviour, with compulsion at one end of the spectrum. It strikes me as something to be done only when the stakes are high and other strategies have proved ineffective. If you’re credible (at least to the kid, whatever your mates and colleagues might think…) then there are a whole bunch of potential sanctions that you can impose to change the incentives in front of the child. If the child doesn’t want to kiss grandma, then make it clear that this is likely to hurt grandma’s feelings. If that’s not enough, point out that grumpy grandma’s are notoriously stingy come Christmas/birdthday time. etc. I see nothing wrong with this – you’re trying to make the effects of the child’s potential behaviour on other people visible and real to the child. To do that, you sometimes need to reflect those costs or benefits back into the child’s world. It’s just a part of getting kids to take other people’s feelings (and intentions, etc) seriously. Abrogating that job by shrugging and saying ” it’s his choice” is not really parenting at all.

Recent Comments

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Name
Email *

Affiliations