South Florida

Hugging your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner? Girl Scouts say, ‘Stop it!’

Practices of forced affection can give little children the wrong idea about consent and physical affection, Girl Scouts of the USA warns parents as the holiday season begins Thursday with Thanksgiving.
Practices of forced affection can give little children the wrong idea about consent and physical affection, Girl Scouts of the USA warns parents as the holiday season begins Thursday with Thanksgiving. Getty Images

In today’s #MeToo world, it has come down to this: As families gather for Thanksgiving dinners across the nation on Thursday the ol’ “Uncle Stanley just got here — go give him a big hug!” is now taboo.

Aunts aren’t off the hook, either.

Girl Scouts of the USA, a 105-year-old leadership development agency for girls, says your daughter doesn’t owe anyone a hug. The group posted on its website and on its Facebook page an admonishment to parents and guardians that they could be scarring their children. The holiday season, which begins with Thanksgiving, is a time when girls get the wrong idea about consent and physical affection, the Girl Scouts warn.

“Think of it this way, 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 have bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life,” reads the post on the Girl Scouts’ website.

In Miami, where it is a cultural practice among many groups to share hugs and kisses — un besito, por favor — among family and friends — the Girl Scouts’ warning poses a quandary. The group isn’t calling out anyone’s ‘funny’ uncle or the Harvey Weinstein of the family but the implication is there.

“We know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help,” said Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald on the site.

“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children. But the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older,” Archibald said.

The organization’s missive to parents comes amid allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment by high-profile men — from Hollywood’s most powerful, like producer Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey, to political figures like Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who canceled his Sunday appearance at the Miami Book Fair, to Roy Moore, the GOP U.S. Senate candidate who has been accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. Eight other women have alleged similar misconduct.

Media figures who have sexual harrassment allegations lodged against them include CBS News and PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Both of them were fired.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one in nine girls under the age of 18, or 63,000 annually in the survey years of 2009-2013, experiences sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult. Nearly one in three episodes of sexual abuse of a child is perpetrated by a family member, the survey found.

Still, Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist with offices in Sarasota and New York City told ABC News, that parents ought not create “a mass hysteria about physical contact with loved ones,” especially during the holiday season, in reaction to the Girls Scouts’ warning.

“As parents, we have to use common sense and also realize that it’s never too early to start a conversation about good touch and bad touch,” Taylor said. “But also we don’t want to overstep our boundaries so our children are not afraid of who they should not be afraid of. The awareness of unwanted contact that we have right now is needed. I just caution parents about limiting family attachment and that kind of loving space that a lot of time only happens at the holidays.”

Girls Scouts suggest a high five, an air kiss or a smile. “This doesn’t give her license to be rude! There are many other ways to show appreciation, thankfulness, and love that don’t require physical contact,” the site read.

State Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation District 32 Democrat who started Lauren’s Kids, a foundation to bring awareness to childhood sexual abuse, was a victim, too, by her nanny. The abuse started when she was 11 and continued for six years. Book applauds the Girl Scouts’ initiative.

“No person — boy, girl, child or adult — should be required to touch another human being without their own consent. To tell a child to embrace someone because of a gift or reunion, robs them of their voice. We cannot silence children but should instead instill the confidence that they have control over their personal space. For too long we’ve allowed social morays to get in the way of common sense and confuse kids into doing things that make them uncomfortable. Even in the context of a friendly, family gathering,” Book said in an email to the Miami Herald.

“We know that 90 percent of the time a child is harmed, the abuse is perpetrated by someone they — and their parents — know, love and trust. We must commit to doing more as a society, and as individuals, to encourage children to use their voices if they are uncomfortable. Let us start now, this Thanksgiving. Empower our children with the knowledge that their body is their own and no one, not even a family member, should touch them without their express permission,” Book said.

Comments on the Girl Scouts’ Facebook post, which had more than 7,100 shares, ran pro and con.

“No girl is going to seriously think she has to get physical with a guy to be polite, just because she had to give Aunt Betty a hug at Christmas when she was little,” read one.

“I was always relieved as a child that my parents didn’t force me into unwanted affection. I remember my mother having to defend me when other people would insist on hugs/kisses — ‘It’s OK if she’d rather shake hands or wave. She can choose.’ That’s a pretty meaningful message. Thanks for that, Mom,” countered another.

As of Tuesday evening, the Boys Scouts of America hadn’t issued a similar warning on its site or Facebook page.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Johanna A. Álvarez contributed to this story.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen