‘What’s Wrong with a Hug?’

hugging childrenWhen a child in our church complained about an adult volunteer’s physical affection, we faced a difficult decision.

By: Name Withheld

Originally published in Leadership Journal at Christianity Today

It was the last thing any church leader wants to hear at the end of a long, sweaty week of VBS. A mother, visibly upset, approached the pastor of our small church to report that an adult volunteer had once again hugged her 10-year-old daughter without permission.

The mother had mentioned her concerns to the pastor earlier in the week when her daughter had told her that this particular volunteer had been soliciting and forcing hugs despite her saying, “No.” Sometimes the hugs included a kiss on the forehead or cheek.

Because the details were somewhat vague, the pastor had talked with the volunteer and asked him to respect the child’s wishes and to stop pressuring her for physical affection.

The volunteer, after an initial protest, had seemed to accept the pastor’s directive. And the mother was satisfied.

The volunteer once again singled out the child, solicited a hug, and then made her ‘pinky-swear’ not to tell her mom.

But two nights later, the volunteer once again singled out the child, solicited a hug, and then made her “pinky-swear” not to tell her mom. But the daughter told her mom, the mom told the pastor, and the pastor knew he needed to do something.

Time to Act, But How?

After speaking with the mother and the volunteer directly, our pastor informed church leadership of the incident and sought our advice. Perhaps it was just an innocent hug and maybe the mother was simply being overprotective? Or was this a case of mandatory reporting? (Our state requires that anyone working with children, including in a volunteer capacity like Vacation Bible School, report even suspectedcases of neglect or abuse.)

We all agreed that we were in no position to determine the seriousness of what had happened—or, to be honest, if anything had.
In the end, we decided that we’d better err on the side of caution and report it to the local department of social services. It wasn’t up to us to decide what had happened between the volunteer and child; we needed to let experts do that.

So the next day our pastor filed a report with DSS (department of social services).

What we quickly discovered was that the choice to do this was not clear in the mind of the congregation. When rumors began circulating, many began asking: “What’s so inappropriate about a hug?”

Our church, like many of her sisters in the South, is best described as a family. If you’re not someone’s cousin, we’ll treat you like one. We sing “Happy Birthday” every Sunday, prefer hugs to handshakes, and generally care for each other’s children as if they were our own. We also have a strong sense of politeness and respect for our elders. Children are taught to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” right along with their ABCs and “Jesus Loves Me.”

Most of the time, it’s an ideal environment for a child. The culture of physical touch and respect for adults provides both the love and the structure that children crave. And as more and more of our children come from broken homes, we’re finding that a community of trustworthy, welcoming adults is exactly what they need most in their lives. But what happens when the dynamics shift ever so slightly? What happens when a child is fearful or an adult is not trustworthy?

Must Kids Consent to Unwanted Touch to ‘Be Polite’?

As the investigation began, a couple things became apparent. Despite feeling increasingly uncomfortable around the volunteer, the child had not gone to another adult for help because she was afraid that refusing the hugs would be considered rude. Unfortunately, her fears were confirmed. When they heard about the incident, many people did question the child’s “politeness” in refusing to let an adult hug her.

And once “politeness” entered the conversation, it was quickly followed by victim-blaming. Soon folks were analyzing the child’s general disposition toward other adults in the congregation: Did she typically answer when spoken to? Did she look people in the eye? Did she tend to ignore adults?While most understood, at least theoretically, that a child could refuse a hug, there was a lingering cultural expectation that she shouldn’t. And if she shouldn’t, then what had happened was not the volunteer’s fault.

Equip Your Church with These Resources

“Reducing the Risk: Keeping Your Ministry Safe from Child Sexual Abuse” (From ChurchLawToday.com)

“Draw the Line: Relational Boundaries for Safe Youth Ministry” (From ChurchLawToday.com)

“Protect Your Children: Evaluate, select, and train leaders” (From BuildingChurchLeaders.com)

The other thing that became apparent is that even thoughtful, good people can be confused about the nature of abuse. Even those who accepted that the child had the right to say “no” found it difficult to understand how a hug could be inappropriate. Part of this stems from the fact that we often use the phrase “child abuse” as shorthand for a specific kind of abuse—sexual abuse. It’s not like it happened in private, they reasoned, so it couldn’t have been sexual, and therefore it wasn’t abuse.

In reality, there are many forms of abuse, including emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse. If we think of abuse only as sexual, we will miss other forms of abuse, many of which are precursors to sexual abuse itself. The problem with an unwanted hug is not that it is a hug but that it is unwanted. The problem is that a child has as much right to consent or to refuse physical affection as adults do.

Coming from a Child, Does ‘No’ Mean No?

As adults, we tend to have a strong sense of physical autonomy and consent. We understand that each of us has the right to either reject or accept physical touch from another person. As Christians, we also affirm that our bodies have been entrusted to us by God, and we are responsible to make good choices with how we use them. Most of us would likewise affirm that children’s bodies have also been given to them by God and are under the stewardship of parents until they reach maturity—until they are emotionally and physically capable of making good choices for themselves. But part of what makes childhood consent so confusing is that children are still learning to make good choices. They are still in development.

For Christians who believe in inborn sin, part of this development includes the possibility that a child can be selfish and rude. Children must learn how to how to behave toward other people—don’t throw toys, share what you have, respect your elders. But teaching them to be polite must never come at the cost of consent. Ultimately, the goal is not politeness; the goal is wisdom.

The goal is children who can discern between good and evil. And as they learn to recognize the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior—even in their own actions—we shouldn’t be surprised when they are able to identify inappropriate behavior in adults as well. They may not be able to articulate why they are uncomfortable; they may not have the categories that we do; but they will knowsomething is wrong. And as church leaders, we must be the first to confirm this instinct. We must be the first to establish the significance of their “no”—as small and as uncertain as it may be.

In the weeks following the incident, we found ourselves engaged in lengthy conversations about abuse, consent, and politeness. The parent supported the child. The perpetrator’s family left the church before the investigation was completed but not before calling other members of the congregation to tell a one-sided version of events. “It was nothing,” they assured confused members. “Just a hug. The pastor shouldn’t have gone to DSS; we should have handled it in the church.”

Soon, people demanded that we share details of what had happened despite our call for strict confidentiality so we wouldn’t hinder the investigation or expose the identity of the minor. Several folks refused to work in the nursery and children’s ministry for fear they too would be reported to DSS. Many in our congregation still struggled to understand what was wrong with “just” a hug.

The authorities concluded that the incident met the minimum threshold for “assault and battery” but after consulting with the child’s parents, the police decided not to press charges, in order to protect the child from further exposure. The police also recommended that the perpetrator enter professional counseling.

After all this, our leaders are convinced we did the right thing, even though there was a relational price to pay for our decision.

We did our best to keep the children of the church unaware of the unrest, but after one particularly long and difficult public meeting, the minor involved asked her mother: “Is this about what happened at Bible School? Is everybody upset because of what I told you?”

This was something of a crisis point. It was imperative that the child not think that the unrest in our church was her fault. If she did—if she thought her “no” had introduced stress, tears, and confusion into a place that she loved—she’d be even less likely to “make a fuss” in the future. She’d simply be polite and accept whatever unwanted advances came her way.
Her mother chose to tell her the truth: “No, this isn’t about that.”
Because in reality, it wasn’t. The fallout our church experienced had nothing to do with what this child had told her mother. It had nothing to do with her refusing physical affection. It had nothing to do with her saying “no” to an adult. Instead, it had everything to do with the adults around her learning to value and affirm her ability to say “no” in the first place.

The author is on the leadership team of a church in the South.

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Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal. Published Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

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