National Column: Girl Scouts USA are spot on about hugs

by Emma Teitel

If you Googled “Girl Scouts USA” recently, you may be under the impression that the youth organization is staunchly opposed to hugs. This is what happens when online backlash to an idea grows so big it dwarfs and obscures the idea itself, until news outlets, such as ABC13 in Houston, Texas, publish tweets like this: “NO MORE HUGS: Girl Scouts give unexpected warning to parents amid growing sex assault scandals.”

Well no, not exactly. In reality, Girl Scouts USA has not issued a warning against hugs, nor has it prohibited hugs in any way shape or form. On the contrary, the youth organization has issued a statement discouraging the practice of forced hugs, in other words, discouraging parents from forcing their daughters into hugs with relatives or family friends when it’s obvious their kids are uncomfortable.

There’s a very good reason Girl Scouts USA is doing this and it’s not because they want to validate the popular complaint among children that “old people smell funny.” It’s because forcing kids to hug people they don’t want to hug may give them a warped perception of consent.

In the organization’s own words, from a statement published to its website earlier this month:

“Telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she ‘owes’ another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life. Give your girl the space to decide when and how she wants to show affection.

Of course, many children may naturally want to hug and kiss family members, friends and neighbours, and that’s lovely – but if your daughter is reticent, don’t force her. Of course, this doesn’t give her licence to be rude!”

As an alternative to forced hugs, Girl Scouts USA suggests hug-wary kids smile at, high-five or “air kiss” their relatives. I’d recommend a firm handshake instead. It’s respectful, it’s dignified (unlike an air kiss, which is a little creepy in its own right) and it’s good practice if they decide to go into business one day.

However, not all parents are keen on these alternatives. In fact, thousands of them have taken to social media recently to express their frustration with what they believe is just another example of PC culture run amok, not to mention an overreaction to the avalanche of sexual assault and harassment stories in the news.

And I sympathize with them. It’s perfectly normal to get your back up at the suggestion that there could be something unsavoury about insisting your kid hug your great aunt Bev or your uncle Ralph because such a suggestion forces you to imagine the unimaginable: that great aunt Bev and uncle Ralph, people you love and trust, could harm your child. But as painful as this exercise might be, it’s an important one.

It’s well known that a great deal of sexual assault and child abuse occurs not in dark alleyways but in our homes, at the hands of people we love and trust.

This isn’t cause to suspect everyone in your extended family circle of being a child predator. Rather, it’s a good reason to practice what we preach when it comes to consent. If we tell kids to speak up if someone makes them feel uncomfortable – whether that person is a stranger on the bus, or a teacher – we should be consistent with this message. To make an exception for a family member or a family friend muddies the message that kids have dominion over their own bodies. And this isn’t a message we want to muddy. It’s also worth noting that it’s hard to find a child psychologist willing to be quoted in the media who opposes Girl Scouts USA’s position on hugs; most are strongly in favour of consensual affection no matter the context.

But there’s another reason a no-forced-hugs policy is a healthy one. Forced hugs aren’t just bad for kids.

They’re crappy for adults, too. A forced hug is like a forced apology. It’s empty. It’s given begrudgingly and both parties involved know that there is no feeling there. A lot of kids aren’t enthusiastic huggers or, more often, they are very selective huggers, and when they are pushed by their parents to be affectionate with certain adults, they shut down or they look away. This isn’t just an unpleasant experience for the kid in question – it’s awkward (or it should be) for the adult too.

The alternatives to forced hugs suggested above by Girl Scouts USA are a good way to help reserved kids be social without asking them to give too much of themselves too soon. These alternatives are also a good way for adults to form bonds with the kids in their lives that are actually meaningful.

Better a heartfelt high five than a stiff and hollow, mandated hug.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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