If you grew up like me, you remember being pushed to give an abrazo to relatives you didn’t remember or who just plain gave you the heeby jeebies. I survived all those awkward moments, but I’m not planning to put my children through them.

When Ana recently posted about piercing her daughter’s ears, it was the occasion for our first disagreement (friendly, of course). In explaining my reasons for not piercing my girls’ ears, I referred to my belief in bodily autonomy. This is a family value that sometimes clashes very distinctly with my familial and cultural traditions.

I grew up a part of a very affectionate familia — hugs, kisses, cuddles all around. I have fond memories of lying like a litter of kittens all on my mom’s bed to watch T.V. or smushing ourselves onto a couch too little for the many of us at the holidays. I have long equated love and caring with physical touch.

I think that for many Latinas this is the case — entramos con abrazos y besos and even if it means we kiss 40 people before we sit down, that’s what we do. The same ritual is practiced when it’s time to go home. The physical connection with friends and family members is second nature to me and helps me feel connected to those I care about.

Even as a teacher, one of the sweet things about teaching Latino/a students is that outside of class they are the only students that will come give me a hug and kiss. It’s a shared cultural bond that brings us closer in a way that is quite lovely.

So it’s been a pleasure for me to see how my girls have adopted a lot of my affectionate ways. I wrote about this cultural body language when I noticed it first with Marisol. However, since then, I’ve also learned about the reasons why I should not enforce this custom.

To put it bluntly, forcing my girls to show physical affection is dangerous. It teaches them that they do not have control over their body and that they will be forced to do things that make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable in order to please someone. Even if it pleases me to see my girls give Abuelita a big sloppy kiss, it is not worth teaching them that they owe anyone a physical act of affection.

I know this sounds extreme. But the facts are these:

I also know, anecdotally, that the women in my life who were sexually abused as children all knew their molesters, and were almost always related to them.

This idea that children deserve control over their bodies is called bodily autonomy and even extends to things like hair-brushing and other “body care” activities that we engage in as parents. Some time ago, I wrote at length about the reasons why I try and honor my children’s “no”s when it is safe to do so.

What I said then and believe now is that it is important to teach our children that their consent is required before anyone else gets to touch their bodies. If I teach my kids that I can touch them whenever and however I want, despite their feelings, they will just replace me with other people they care about as they move through life. I prefer to deal with the hassle of seeking consent now than trying to teach them, as adults, that their consent matters.

And that applies to kissing Abuelita, or Tía, or Tío, or anyone else.

It’s also not that hard to do:

“Would you like to give Abuelita a hug?”  If yes, then great!

If no, then “Okay. If you feel like it later, just let her know.” Or “Okay, well if you feel like giving her a hug, or a handshake, or a high-five later, just let her know.”

Usually, they do offer a hug or a kiss or something. However, even if they don’t, I don’t force it. I know my mom is not going to hurt them, and I like to think that I know that about all our friends and relatives, but I’d be a fool to think that abuse doesn’t happen in families like mine or among friends like ours. It happens across class and culture and to force my girls to do something because it makes me happy, knowing that it would mean taking away from them one important line of defense against predators, would be selfish.

I know many Spanglishbaby readers will disagree with this, and I’m okay with that. I’m also hoping to learn if you’ve found other ways to balance the need for safety and the cultural tradition of hugs and kisses for everyone.

{Photo via Caitlinator }

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