Teaching children consent: To hug or not to hug?

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America recently released an advisory to parents not to force their daughters to hug relatives, sparking debate.

Debate sparked after U.S. Girl Guides advise parents not to force daughters to hug relatives and friends

Give children the option to hug or not hug, says sexual health educator Saleema Noon (Shutterstock)

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America recently released an advisory to parents not to force their daughters to hug relatives and friends as the holiday season nears.

While critics complain it is an overreaction to the flurry of recent sexual harassment allegations in the media, others argue it is an important conversation to have with children.

Saleema Noon, a sexual health educator in Vancouver, said talking about expectations of hugging and kissing can be used as a way to teach children about respecting personal boundaries.

"It's really important that as parents and role models for our kids, we teach them that they are the boss of their bodies," Noon said. "Parents can teach their kids about consent from day one."

And consent goes both ways, she told Michelle Eliot, CBC guest host of B.C. Almanac.

"It's also crucially important that we, at the same time, teach our kids the importance of respecting other people's boundaries," she said. "Even at a young age, we should teach our kids that we should ask before hugging someone."

Although the conversation was sparked by the Girl Scouts' message, Noon said the conversation is not gender specific.

"This isn't just a girl issue," she said. "I hope the same message is given to boys at Boy Scouts."

Other forms of affection

Hugs and kisses are often taught as the default way of showing affection and respect, Noon said, but families can brainstorm other ways to get the message across, such as high fives, side hugs or with words.  

"Parents can talk to family friends and relatives before they come over, especially older relatives, to let them know that, 'Hey, we're really working on creating strong, healthy boundaries with our kids and so please don't be offended if they don't want to hug you like they normally do,'" she said.

Children might not be able to verbalize their feelings, Noon said, but parents should be aware of subtle cues and make it clear to others that their children's boundaries are to be respected.

"If our kids are perfectly happy to give hugs and kisses to guests when they come over, there is no issue — we are not suggesting that we teach our kids not to do this," she said. "We just need to reinforce the fact that kids have a choice."

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

Sexual health educator Saleema Noon on whether or not we should make our kids hug relatives over the holiday season. Gardener Brian Minter talks indoor green holiday displays. 48:46

With files from B.C. Almanac.