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A Child Safe Organisations approach to kissing children on the cheek

On April 29, 2019, The Sector published an article titled, ‘Is it ok to kiss children on the cheek?

The article references Quality Area Five of the National Quality Framework which underscores the importance of relationships with children. The Sector sought clarification from the NSW Department of Education which stated:

“There is no specific provision of the Education and Care Services National Law and Regulations that explicitly refers to the appropriateness of educator’s kissing children. Regulation 168(j) requires services to have policies and procedures in place regarding interactions with children, including the matters set out in Regulations 155 and 156.”

The Sector also referenced the ‘Addressing child protection issues in codes of conduct’ factsheet by the NSW Ombudsman which recommends that organisations, “Specify situations where physical conduct with children is either appropriate, not recommended or prohibited.” It does not however provide a concrete answer to this question. This factsheet does further state that:

“Children may seek physical contact from staff in various circumstances, and staff need to effectively respond to a child’s needs without breaching the agency’s related policies.”

This statement becomes more relevant when the question is viewed from a child safe organisations perspective.

The National Principles for Child Safe Organisations were endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in February 2019 and provide a nationally consistent approach to embedding child safe cultures within organisations that engage children.

Principle 1 is of the National Principles is paired with Article 3 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which is in summary, that all adults should act in the best interest of children. The Principle is: Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture. Key action areas for the Principle include that a Code of Conduct provides guidelines for staff and volunteers on expected behavioural standards and responsibilities and that a child safe culture is championed and modelled at all levels of the organisation.

Principle 3 is: Families and communities are informed, and involved in promoting child safety and wellbeing. Key actions areas for this Principle include that families participate in decisions affecting children and that organisations engage and openly communicate with families and the community about its child safe approach.

Principle 7 is: Staff and volunteers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children and young people safe through ongoing education and training. Key action areas for this Principle include: staff and volunteers are trained and supported to effectively implement the organisation’s child safety and wellbeing policy and staff and volunteers receive training and information to respond effectively to issues of child safety and wellbeing.

For Child Safe Organisations, the question of, ‘Is it okay to kiss children on the cheek?’ should be an easy one for all staff and volunteers to answer. It will be easy because their Code of Conduct will directly address if this practice is acceptable or not.
— Brad Poynting, Principal Consultant, PCA

Their staff and volunteers will have had training which reinforces the organisation’s position on the topic. Their staff and volunteers will have already provided information to families on if this practice is acceptable or not and the reason for this decision. If parents or families encourage staff, volunteers or children to breach this rule, staff and volunteers will be well prepared to interrupt the breach, safely re-direct the child in a supportive way to engage in an acceptable interaction and will be able to explain to the family why this is important.

For organisations which are not regarded as Child Safe Organisations, this situation is likely to be a quagmire of uncertainty, mixed feelings, ethical dilemmas and potentially upset and offended family. If the family are encouraging this interaction, what is the harm? If this is something we do here with all the children, why are these parents upset by this? Whether the organisation permits the practice or not – it is likely to raise issues.
— Brad Poynting, Principal Consultant, PCA

For those organisations, they may wish to consider these questions:

  • Whose needs are being met by allowing or encouraging educators to kiss children on the cheek?

  • What lessons does this teach children about expressing intimate affection with all adults?

  • Is kissing children on the cheek the most or only appropriate way for educators to express care, concern and affection for the child or can this be done another way?

  • If specific guidance on what physical interaction between educators and children is not clearly explained in a Code of Conduct and training, how can staff and volunteers recognise if the interactions such as kissing children on the cheek is benign or an example of grooming behaviour?

Throughout this article, the topic of educators kissing children on the cheek has been the specific subject of discussion. However, the same questions of appropriateness can be raised about many other educator-child interactions that occur daily.

Interactions such as tickling children, conferring special status on a child as a ‘helper’, one-on-one interactions such as a child assisting an educator in an office or storeroom and many others.

As a general discussion topic, the question of, “Is it ok to kiss children on the cheek?” may be difficult for an individual to answer and different organisations may have different answers.

However, for staff and volunteers of any child-serving or child-contact organisation, the question should have a definitive answer and staff and volunteers should be able to point to the policy document that contains the answer.

Further, staff and volunteers should also be able to explain how they are meant to respond if they observe this rule being breached. Organisations where staff and volunteers are not able to do this are opening themselves and their children up to significantly more risk than is acceptable.

Bradley Poynting