Reluctant Hugs: Why You Shouldn't Force Kids to Show Physical Affection

Teaching consent is just as important for your toddler as it is for your teenager.
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A few months ago, my husband and I hosted friends for a cookout. Our 4-year-old daughter spent the evening showing off a parade of toys and inventing games to play with our guests, who were more than happy to shower her with attention in between beers and bouts of adult conversation. When it was time for our friends to leave, one took a knee to meet our daughter at eye level. "Can I have a hug goodbye," she asked, opening her arms. Our daughter obliged with enthusiasm, launching herself at top speed with the full weight of her body, as if they'd known each other for years instead of hours.

Our extremely affable daughter moves through life as if she's never met a stranger. Clerks at the grocery store, neighbors out walking their dogs, and people who happen to pass within a foot of us when we're running errands are quickly termed "friends." But that doesn't always mean she wants to hand out hugs.

With the holiday season in full swing, many of us are spending time at family or work functions with relatives, friends, and acquaintances our kids haven't seen for awhile or may not know very well. When it's time to leave, one of our jobs as parents is to help our children navigate this interaction in a way that's comfortable for them.

Why? Because teaching consent is just as important for a 3-year-old as it for a 13-year-old. It's never too early for kids to practice bodily autonomy, says Airial Clark, MA, a sexuality educator and community organizer. "Affection should be freely given, which means it needs to be freely withheld," Clark adds. Cajoling a young child into giving frail Grandma Betty a kiss on the cheek may seem harmless, but, Clark explains, "There are many things being taught to a child when their bodily autonomy isn't taken into consideration. One message that gets internalized is 'your body is more important than your self.' As in, the affection or comfort your body gives matters more than how you feel about giving [it]."

For parents, this can take some work. Maybe Aunt Ida isn't going to see her great-niece again for an entire year. Perhaps a cousin jokingly cries into his hands when your son shies away from a hug goodbye. But mitigating the hurt feelings of an adult isn't an acceptable reason for steamrolling over someone else's autonomy, no matter how young. "This idea that rejection should be avoided at all costs is really harmful and a vital part of rape culture," Clark says.

Clark, who's the mother of two teenage boys herself, encourages parents to "let the child choose what feels good to them" when it comes to saying goodbye. If you witness your child's reluctance when asked for a hug, throw out a few alternatives. We like offering handshakes, high-fives, or a wave as we leave. For awhile, blowing a kiss was our daughter's signature sign-off. To set the right expectations for relatives and friends, Clark suggests saying something like, 'We're into high fives right now'; 'We're working on personal space'; or 'I'm teaching my kids to ask before hugging someone. If you ask them if it's okay before you hug them, that will help them learn.'

A refrain we've echoed often to our daughter, even before she could speak, is that "everyone is in charge of their own bodies." This is a good reminder when she's attempting to chase down a playmate for a squeeze, as well as when an adult is asking her to sit in their lap. It's a value we hope she'll ingrain deeply, so that as she gets older, she's confident in saying no to unwanted affection in any situation, no matter how much she's being pressured.

Like adults, kids should practice good manners when it comes to social situations. They should help walk guests to the door and say goodbye or, when they're in someone else's home, thank them for hosting. But it's never rude to thwart unwanted touching, no matter how well-meaning the giver may be.

And while this may momentarily disappoint a grandparent or two in the short-term, Clark reminds parents that "grown adults should be able to handle rejection. The burden doesn't need to be placed on a child to make an adult feel better." Plus, she adds, "If the parent makes bodily autonomy normal, there's a good chance everyone else will adjust to the new normal too." Which is exactly what consent should be for adults and kids—totally normal.

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