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.