Many adults have childhood memories of their parents saying something like, "Don't be shy. Go kiss your grandfather hello!" But these requests can make kids feel uncomfortable.
A new school of thought suggests that we should let children decide how and with whom they have physical contact. Laura Slesar, director of Kidpower Vermont, has taught lessons on personal safety and empowerment to more than 700 kids throughout Vermont, including her own. She helps her young students understand how to set boundaries and learn to take control of their own bodies. She builds on these concepts when talking with teens about dating and consent.
Kidpower is an international nonprofit that runs workshops for children, teens and adults. Find more information and resources on this topic at kidpower.org.
KIDS VT: At what age should parents start talking to their kids about physical boundaries?
LAURA SLESAR: Right away. For parents of babies and toddlers, if they incorporate these boundary principles into their normal parenting, then it just becomes a part of the child's normal vocabulary.
KVT: Can you offer some examples?
LS: In Kidpower, we say that our bodies belong to ourselves, but some things are not a choice, such as physical contact for health and safety reasons. So with a baby or toddler you might say, "You don't want to have your diaper changed, but this isn't a choice, so we'll change your diaper and then go back to playing." Or, [for an older child], "I know you don't want to go to the doctor today, but that's not a choice because it's for your health."
KVT: Are there specific rules that pertain to an environment that involves physical contact, such as an athletic field?
LS: We teach kids that there are four rules around touch that involves play, teasing or affection, which are separate from health and safety. Touch that's supposed to be fun, like wrestling and contact sports, must be the choice of each person playing; it must be safe; it must be allowed by the adults in charge; and it is never a secret.
KVT: How do you teach these skills?
LS: We do a lot of role-playing. It's one thing to talk about these rules and another to act out scenarios. So, I'll say, "OK, let's pretend I'm your dentist and you don't want to get a filling." And I'll say, "I'm sorry, but you have to do this because it's for your health and your parents said it's OK." And then I'll say, "OK, what if the dentist says he wants to drill your teeth but tells you to not tell your parents. Is that OK?" The kids learn that even touch for health and safety reasons should never be a secret. Kids learn to say, "Stop or I'll tell my parents!"
KVT: How do you teach kids to say no?
LS: We have a "no" game in which we practice saying no really quietly to each other, then get louder and louder until they're yelling it. So they practice using a loud, strong, firm voice. We have them practice making stop signs and fences with their hands. They practice walking with assertiveness, confidence and awareness of their surroundings, so they learn to say no with both their voices and bodies.
KVT: What do parents say to relatives or friends who get offended if their child doesn't hug or kiss them?
LS: I think it's really important to back up the child in front of the other person so the child knows they're doing the right thing. You can explain on behalf of your child what your family's safety rule is. For example, you can say, "In our family, the rule is: Hugs are choices." And then you can ask the kid to do something different, which the child might prefer. Maybe the child would like to high-five, sing a song, play catch or wave instead. What adults are generally looking for in those situations are positive ways to connect with that child. If they can find a substitute way to connect, then everybody is happy.
KVT: What if people say your child is being unfriendly?
LS: If you're doing something that a child perceives as unwanted, then it defeats the whole purpose of that hug or kiss. It can actually improve relationships to respect the child's boundaries. If a child knows that a certain relative is always going to pinch their cheeks, and they hate it, they're not going to look forward to that relative's visit. They'll be closer, not more distant, if they can find another way to connect.
KVT: What do you say to critics who argue that this approach makes children think that everyone is a potential predator?
LS: To me, it's a basic issue of respect for the child and the integrity of his or her boundaries. If you teach kids that they always get a choice with everybody, even with the people they love, it will always serve them well. With people you love, you can choose to hug them today but not tomorrow. You can hug them now but not in five minutes. To me, it's less fear-based to say that's the rule all the time and not just with certain people.
KVT: Do you give kids details about child abuse?
LS: No, we keep the tone of the classes really upbeat, positive and fun. Even with parents, we don't dwell on scary facts. But I would say, "Sometimes we have problems with people we know. Who's ever been wrestling and started to feel like it's getting too rough?" Scary statistics don't help kids be safer; they just instill fear. Skills make them safer.