Re-Posted from the Patriot Ledger.
When my niece Annabel was 2, I realized she understood more about safety than any of us.
Like most kids her age, she would have run into traffic or given herself concussions if her parents hadn't intervened. But when it came to more important realities about how to avoid dangerous situations, she was far ahead of most adults.
My family was on vacation, walking around the downtown area of a resort village near Lake Michigan. A band was playing on the patio of a restaurant and a high fence blocked Annabel's view of the musicians. She began dancing and pointing in the direction of the band. I picked her up, hoping to put her on my shoulders so she could see.
"No!" she yelled. And loud.
I put her down. My sister told her to say "no, thank you" instead of screaming. I'm not a parent so I defer to my sisters about the best ways to teach kids how to communicate their needs. But I am a self-defense instructor so I'm especially enthusiastic when people yell "no" in response to being touched in ways they don't want.
What amazes me most as I watch my nieces and nephews grow is how clear they are about their boundaries. Even when they struggled to walk and couldn't speak in complete sentences, the children in my life have always had a sophisticated understanding of when touch feels safe and comfortable and when it doesn't. They'll burrow deep into your lap if they're feeling cuddly and, if they're not, they'll push against you until you let go.
As their aunt, I want to nurture their intuitive, visceral sense of when touch feels right and when it doesn't. I care so much because I teach self-defense to adults, many of whom have had that intuitive sense socialized, criticized, or literally beaten out of them.
Many of my students seek out self-defense classes because they need an experience of yelling "no" as loud as they can or physically fighting back against an attempted assault to counter the confusing or destructive messages they got as children. Some of my students were taught that it was impolite to say "no" and that being impolite should be avoided at all costs. Others grew up in abusive families where asserting themselves was physically unsafe.
Giving children the skills and permission to identify and refuse touch they don't want is one of the most important things we can do to keep them safe. This is true because despite how much energy adults spend telling children to beware of strangers, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows.
More importantly, research on abusers shows that many of them erode children's boundaries in subtle ways -- like tickling kids when they don't like it -- before attempting an overtly abusive act. In one study, incarcerated sex offenders reported that their attempts to perpetrate abuse failed when children yelled "no," refused to be touched, or ran away.
These studies underscore the power children have to keep themselves safe. But they only have this power when adults back them up.
It may seem harmless or even polite to insist that a child hugs or kisses an aunt or grandparent when she is obviously not comfortable. But when we do this we risk socializing children to endure touch they don't want. This could make them less aware of their of their intuition when an adult is touching them in a way that is truly unsafe.
Child abuse prevention experts Sandy Wurtele and Feather Berkower recommend asking children how they want to greet relatives and giving them options like blowing kisses, shaking hands, or giving a high five. They also recommend talking to important family members about the reasons for giving children choices about how they express affection.
It follows logic that a 2-year-old who is supported by her family when she doesn't want her aunt to pick her up will grow into a 10-year-old who doesn't let her friends talk her into bullying other kids. From there, she stands an excellent chance of growing into a teenager who doesn't let people pressure her into drinking or having sex before she's ready.
Then, when she's an adult, she'll take a self-defense class because it's smart and practical -- like getting good car insurance or learning to change a tire -- rather than as a way to regain the confidence she lost form a lifetime of being taught her boundaries didn't matter.