The etiquette of holidays and hugs


The Girl Scouts of America caused quite the media storm this week when they posted the article ‘Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays.’ The article, designed to illustrate the importance of teaching young girls about consent, has caused a debate between what constitutes awareness of consent and promotion of personal boundaries and what is just politeness. 

I have a flock of great aunts and uncles (and by ‘flock’ I mean I just went through the Wikipedia page for collective nouns and wondered if I could refer to them as a paddling – ducks, a parliament – owls, or a pandemonium – parrots, before settling on being the daughter my mother raised me to be and be polite).

However, my mother also raised me to believe that I had no choice but to endure scratchy kisses, awkward hugs, and general invasion of my personal space as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for my Christmas presents.

Now, I didn’t associate this with thinking that a gift warrants some physical demonstration of affection, I just assumed it was the unfortunate by-product of being the youngest in my family and therefore being the most put-upon member of the family. (All other babies of the family will be nodding in vociferous agreement right now!)

But the Girl Scouts’ article raises an important point: “telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she “owes” another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.”

This is an important and valid point. Fast forward to my teenage years when my adolescent act of rebellion was resolutely not allowing elderly relatives to smash their face against mine, the message sent by my male peers and corroborated by my female peers was if a guy does something for you, then you owe him.

And the exchange was never like-for-like. When I worked at university in a role where I was responsible for 4,000 students living on campus, the exchange was if a guy buys you a drink, then you owe him anything from a kiss to intercourse.

This is not a lesson we explicitly teach children (primarily girls), it’s one we re-inforce throughout childhood and we don’t realise the positions we socialise children into that renders them vulnerable. We socialise girls especially out of saying ‘no,’ and then we teach them to ‘just say no’ when it comes to sexual consent, and then chastise them and victim-blame them when they can’t say ‘no’ and are assaulted.

Developmental psychologist, Andrea Bastiani Archibald contributed to the Girl Scouts’ article saying, “the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime… teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, known when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”

There has been push back on the article. In a comment to the New York Times, Sharon Lamb, a professor of counselling and school psychology at the University of Massachussetts said that the Girl Scouts’ advice might expect too much of younger children to figure out their own boundaries and that “having a general no-hugs policy could remove an opportunity for parents to find out whether there are deeper meanings to a child’s hesitation.”

At Doorsteps, Operation Bullfinch is never far from our mind and, in our numerous youth work projects, we want to build resilience amongst young people and a key part of this is in young people knowing about boundaries, both the ones they can rightly put up and the ones they must not transgress. It’s one of the keys to seeing young people thrive.

This isn’t about banning hugging this holiday season, but it is about equipping our children and young people to discern their bodily autonomy and to set them up with the skills of resilience so that they may thrive.


Click here to download NSPCC’s PANTS (The Underwear rule) – resources for schools and teachers