Rethinking The Holidays: Teaching Healthy Boundaries to Children
- Posted by Kristin Thompson
- On December 18, 2018
- 0 Comments
The holidays can be a time of great anticipation as many of us look forward to seasonal traditions and gathering with relatives and friends. It is also a time when children learn social norms regarding consent, physical affection, body integrity, and gender roles – all of which impact their safety and wellbeing.
Hugs and Kisses
Have you ever heard an adult insist, “Uncle just got here, go give him a big hug!” or “Auntie gave you that nice toy, go give her a kiss.” If yes, you might want to reconsider how you address this behavior in the future. Telling children that they owe someone a hug just because they haven’t seen a person in a while or because they received a gift can set the stage for risky situations later in life.
Do we want our children to grow into adults who believe that they owe someone physical affection if that someone buys them dinner or does something nice?
The lessons children learn about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected lasts a lifetime. Modeling protective behavior about consent early on can help children to understand their rights when lines are being crossed and that it’s safe to turn to adults for help. This involves giving children the space to decide when and how to show affection, such as “How would you like to say hello to Uncle?” or “You may thank Auntie with a hug, handshake, or smile.”
The Holiday Meal
Have you ever encountered someone who “polices the plates” at a seasonal feast? From grandma commenting on a child going back for seconds to other guests telling a child to eat up so that he or she can look good for the prom, the way families talk about bodies can leave its mark in serious ways.
Do we want our children to grow into adults who believe that their bodies are open source for public comment?
At big holiday dinners, unhealthy focus is sometimes put on how much (or how little) people at the table are eating. If you hear someone critiquing what a child chooses to eat, try saying something that promotes personal privacy in a positive way. “The food is delicious, and we’re in wonderful company. Let’s focus on that and let everyone enjoy the meal in their own way.”
From “Have you heard the one about the girl who…” to “That’s a job for a man!” chatter that was commonplace in years past has no place in a protective society. But when it’s your host or a beloved grandparent making the comment, the healthy response can be less than clear. Even if they mean no harm, it’s important to note that the youngest members of a family are looking to their elders as role models and listening to every single word.
Do we want our children to grow into adults who believe that they must quietly tolerate insensitive or demoralizing comments from those in authority?
If what is said degrades or generalizes someone in a negative manner, use it as an opportunity to model constructive ways of speaking up with confidence. Try something like, “You probably didn’t mean it this way, but that type of [joke/statement/comment] is hurtful.”
Boys and men are equally as capable as girls and women at clearing the table, putting away leftovers, and doing the dishes. Yet in many homes, these more domestic chores are still relegated to female family members while the guys are invited to kick back and relax in front of the TV. Social norms that reinforce inequality in childhood invite injustice later in life.
Do we want our children to grow into adults who believe that someone has the right to overpower them because of their gender?
If you know there’s traditionally been a gender imbalance when it comes to after-dinner cleanup and other chores, consider having a conversation with your immediate family leading up to the get-together. Tell your family that, because you don’t follow gender-based roles at home, you’re going to suggest that everyone—boys and girls, men and women—pitch in this year.
One way to make newly shared responsibilities go a bit more smoothly is to write the names of all guests on slips of paper and put them in a “chore jar.” Then the host can draw names out for specific jobs one-by-one at random. Fair and square.
If you find yourself saying, “I never thought about that before,” consider yourself in good company. Most of us do not question the social norms that we uphold. They are woven neatly into our day-to-day activities and passed down through the ages. Becoming aware of what motivates our behavior, however, sets us apart as a species and empowers us to actively design culture that supports our highest values. Doing so makes creating a world without abuse possible.
Wishing you a warm and wonderful holiday season!