There’s been a great uproar on social media about an episode of a reality talent dance show, where actors Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez  turned up to promote their upcoming movie. The reason for the uproar is one of the child participants, who refused to hug Jacqueline when she asked him she could. This was followed by Salman coming up on stage, bringing Jacqueline with him and pushing the child forth into a hug with Jacqueline, quite visibly against the child’s wishes.

The entire episode brings into sharp relief the understanding of consent in Indian society. We still do not consider our children as individuals of any standing, who may have opinions and choices of their own which may not necessarily coincide with ours. As long as the child’s choice is not detrimental or harmful to his own self or to others, we need to respect it. When a child categorically refuses to hug someone, it’s neither cute nor funny to make him or her do so forcibly—either through physical force or emotional pressure. Arguments in favour of the actors state that reality shows are scripted, and that the child wasn’t uncomfortable but only acting according to the script. This puts the scriptwriters in an ever worse light, considering that they purposely wrote in a scene which involved a child refusing to be hugged and being forced to do so by celebrities, while other celebrities looked on and applauded; the child appearing ‘lucky’ to star-struck masses because he got a hug from ‘the star’. No matter how rich and famous a person, every individual reserves the right to say no to physical touch from them, and that includes children.  The question, however, is of making adults realise the existence of children as individuals and not merely extensions of themselves, or worse, even ‘dolls’ as we are wont to think of them.

It is common, in Indian homes, to push the child, cajole him or her, into hugging or kissing a visiting ‘uncle/ aunty’ despite the child refusing to do so or being visibly uncomfortable about it. We get worked up about our child who seems too ‘shy’ or ‘timid’ to engage with other people. Even if the child is shy, it is imperative for the parents to give space to the child to develop at his own pace. Shyness isn’t a disease. It’s a personality trait and there’s nothing wrong with people who are introverts. There’s a whole spectrum of personalities between the extremes of complete introvert and extrovert, and it’s perfectly fine for the child to fall anywhere between them—whether he or she is the super effervescent kid or the quiet one who prefers to sit in his place and observe others from a distance. Adults too, occupy various places in the spectrum, and every adult becomes an introvert at times, while an extrovert at another. There can be no binary categorisations for human nature.

It is important for children to know that they exercise full control over their own bodies. The whole idea of consent is to give an individual the right to say no, and also to respect another person’s choices despite them not coinciding with our own. This applies to children as much as it does to adults—if not more. Learning to respect their own bodies and the bodies of others has major implications for their behaviour in adulthood; it enables them to become responsible adults who respect the choices of others and actively seek consent.

It is not enough, then, to merely love our child. We must learn to respect the child as well.

Zehra Naqvi