I’m sure you’ve encountered or witnessed it: adults forcing or coercing children into showing affection to other adults, and the subsequent shaming that sometimes follows from those who were supposed to be on the receiving end of the affection.

You may hear a parent order her child to, “Give Aunt Rosie a hug!” or hear a well-meaning uncle feign hurt and disappointment, exclaiming, “I don’t get a hug?” when his niece who sees him once every five years doesn’t warmly embrace him on demand.

While we want our children to be polite and friendly, we can unknowingly damage them when we push them to give up autonomy of their bodies at the expense of pleasing others.

While I am lucky to have loving adults whom I trust in the lives of my children, we cannot bury our heads in the sand when confronted with these disturbing statistics:

According to the Department of Justice, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they reach the age of 18, and nearly 6 out of 10 sexual assaults occur in the victim’s home or the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. 

These are things no one wants to think about—let alone speak of—but we have to think about it, and we have to talk about it, because the stakes are too high if we don’t.

Even if our children are not exposed to adults who may harm them, once they enter adolescence, they have to navigate a world of relationships where rape culture is disturbingly prevalent. If children are encouraged from a young age to put the wishes of others above the rights of their personal space and body autonomy, it sets a precedent for helplessness that encourages victimization.

I want to be extremely clear that I am not in any way saying abuse is the fault of the victim; however, I know from experience that adolescence can be a real challenge for someone raised to be a nice, polite girl who thinks of others at the expense of herself.

I sometimes think of how I could have been spared a lot of heartache as a teenager if I had just been able to find my voice and stand up for myself. I’m not blaming anyone for my timidity, and I’m not blaming myself for the unwanted attention I got, nor am I saying that every teenage boyfriend I had was a predator. I am simply trying to create awareness about the issue of consent, and how knowing how to give consent, how to seek consent, and how to deny others access to your body isn’t something that is always automatic—it’s something that often must be learned.

This conversation needs to start early and it needs to start now—and it needs to sound something like this:

“I’m sorry Aunt Rosie, but Lucy isn’t ready for a hug. Maybe next time she’ll feel like giving you one.”

Emily Sinkclear

Emily Easley-Sinkclear lives in St.Louis with her husband and kids, though she grew up in Minnesota and longs to return to a place where snow and evergreens abound. Her greatest joys include playing with words, hiking, and laughing with her family.