Last week, Donald Trump was widely criticized for kissing a young black girl who was brought on stage at a rally in Green Bay Wisconsin. As the mother of two daughters, 19 and nine, I watched in complete horror. And while Trump was dead wrong for forcing a kiss on that girl, there was something else on my mind.
Where the hell is this girl’s family and why did they let her on that stage?!
Now, politicians kissing babies is as old as time. It’s literally been a part of the political process since the 1800s. And there are many collections of President Obama interacting with babies, toddlers and young children over the past eight years of his presidency, many of which made my ovaries explode, as the now oft-repeated phrase goes. If I’d ever attended an Obama event, I’d probably throw my kid right at him (or Michelle!) with glee.
So what’s the difference with Trump? Well, quite obviously, there’s his whole self-admitted history as man who will touch a woman without her consent and in general, someone you don’t hand off to your daughter. But it brings up the question of whether there’s actually anyone I should allow to hug and kiss my child without her express and explicit permission.
Recently, I visited an old college friend with my 9-year-old. He is my daughter’s godfather and she’s fond of him. Since she’s been able to run, she makes a beeline for him every time she sees him and gets a hug. Then he usually picks her up and spins her around. As she’s grown older, nothing’s changed. (Except they’re practically the same height now and if he tried to pick her up he’d have a back spasm.)
That same friend’s dad, on the other hand, is a completely different situation.
Now, this is a man I’ve known (and loved) my whole life. He took me and my friends back and forth to cheerleader practice in high school. He always bought more Girl Scout Cookies from me than his family could ever eat. Since sixth grade, if I couldn’t reach my dad, I called this man.
When my 9-year-old daughter was much younger, she hugged my friend’s dad out of politeness. It wasn’t the sincere I LOVE YOU hug that my friend got. But I’ve always believed the act to be perfectly harmless. That’s what you do; hug the old dude you don’t know that well and move on. But whether my daughter should ever feel like she’s expected to hug someone out of politeness or cultural expectations is a question I hadn’t explicitly thought about until recently.
In the car on the way home, I decided to start the dialogue. I began by just asking my 9-year-old flat out if she was okay with hugging my friend’s dad.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t want to hug him. But I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
My heart sank. My number one goal on this planet is to take my sure this 9-year-old is safe. And not only that, she needs to feel safe. I had failed her. Just because that man is my bestie’s dad, it does not mean my kid needs to hug him. Whether it’s Obama, Beyoncé or Donald Trump, I want her to know that she decides who gets to touch her body.
When I was growing up, my mom always talked to my sister and I about “bad touch” and she was diligent about making sure we knew who the instigators were. (My favorite exercise was when she made my sister and I practice screaming at the top of our lungs, a practice that would used if anyone was trying to kidnap us. I’ve still got a legendary horror-movie scream.)
The difference between my generation and my children’s is that parents of my generation feared “stranger danger” in a more widespread, and in their eyes, valid way. When I was six years old, a rash of black children were killed in the Atlanta area. Even though we were a thousand miles away in New Jersey, my parents were petrified. They did not let me and siblings out of their sight and implemented all kind of actions to keep us safe. Hugging a friend’s dad was not a worry. In 2016, I don’t have that stranger danger fear. Of course, my 9-year-old could be kidnapped or otherwise harmed. But the truth is, the real danger is usually much closer.
I told my daughter she didn’t ever have to hug anyone she didn’t want to—no one. Not me or her dad. Not a neighbor. Not her godparents. Not her godparent’s dad. No one. Ever.
“But I don’t know how to do that,” she said. “If someone puts their arms out for a hug…am I supposed to just say no thanks?”
I tried to do a role play with her and I couldn’t figure it out either. Offer a handshake while someone’s arms are outstretched for a hug? She said that would feel awkward. Give someone a pound? She feared that would be considered disrespectful with an older relative.
My mom interrupted.
“I can’t believe we’re discussing this! She doesn’t have to figure this out. Baby, just don’t hug anyone if you don’t feel like it. Period!”
I challenged my mom. What if we were having our yearly Kwanzaa get-together, and your best friend came over? What if your granddaughter backed away from a hug and offered a handshake instead? My mom’s face fell. “I’d be so embarrassed,” she said.
For the next hour, my mom and I talked about how to work this out. We talk about how to give my daughter a sense of agency over her body while navigating cultural norms. We had our version of “The Trump Talk,” a phrase suggested in last week’s Savage Love column by a reader who spoke on the depressing conversation that parents needs to have with their little girl about revolting, predatory entitled men.
We have our work cut out for us when it comes to that conversation. Humans hug. All mammals do. We’re hardwired to touch each other. It’s even been proven that touch can positively affect the health of premature newborns. We kiss, touch and hug as a way of identifying, bonding and protecting each other. I nurtured my daughter from her first breath; of course I expect her to hug me when she comes home from school. We hug our babies. We kiss them. We kiss other people’s babies. We hold hands with children to get across the street.
But as a child grows, we give them more and more control. I didn’t spoon feed my daughter when she was five, and she now has to clean up herself in the kitchen. As our children grow, we give them more responsibility and that should extend to how they navigate physical interactions.
While my daughter is thinking over how she wants to handle these situations in her life, I’ve made it clear to her that I support her doing so on a case-by-case basis. It can be based on what her gut tells her on any given day and she shouldn’t feel boxed in by her choices.
It’s a talk I’ve had with my daughter now more than once. And we will revisit it often. But it’s not just revolting, predatory entitled men and women I need to protect her from. I need to make sure my daughter realizes that only she determines who touches her—even down to a handshake. No matter who it is. Whether it’s a creepy Trump kiss on a stage, or an adorable hug from President Obama in the middle of the Oval Office.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times bestseller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.