It seems pretty normal to ask your child to go up and greet a visiting relative with a hug, right? As in, “Hey sweetie, why don’t you go give your aunt a hug and kiss?!”
But when you really think about it, it’s actually a little strange. You wouldn’t tell your dad to go give Aunt Betty a hug, and you wouldn’t ask your best friend to kiss your mom on the cheek, would you? Nope! And when I put it that way, doesn’t it seem a little icky and even a bit controlling? We’d never ask another adult to do these things! So why do we ask it of our kids?
Maybe some of our children aren’t comfortable showing physical affection or giving hugs to distant relatives. But do we care? Shouldn’t we care? Despite their size and age, children are still tiny humans with rights, feelings, and bodily autonomy. Shouldn’t they get to decide whether or not they want to hug someone? Shouldn’t it be voluntarily on their part?
That’s exactly what the experts are saying, and now that I’ve learned about this concept of letting our children decide who they touch and who they don’t, it seems weird that it’s taken us this long to figure out! There are almost NO other situations in the world where we’d ask a fellow human being to go up and touch another one if they didn’t want to. No, instead we’d let them use their own free will. We’d wait for it to be their idea. Why should our children be any different?
I know, I know. This might sound totally foreign to what we’re used to. But logically, do we want our children to grow up feeling like they have to use their bodies to make other people feel happy, loved, or important? Sure, grandma might really want that hug, but if it’s forced and uncomfortable for the child, is it worth it? Is it even genuine? Of course not!
One author rephrases these types of requests when relatives visit by telling her daughter, “I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.” Smart, right?
And I’m not saying we should let our children be rude to family members, their elders, or other adults, but they shouldn’t be forced to touch them if they don’t want to. They should, however, always be polite, say hello, and introduce themselves. That doesn’t necessarily require a hug or a kiss though. A handshake, a high five, or a wave would do just fine. We can let it be their choice.
Hey, we’re not all huggers, okay?! Why would we assume that our children are any different? It’s a personal preference, and we need to take into consideration that kids might have the same preferences as adults. You wouldn’t go around hugging everybody on the street or in the supermarket against their will, nor would you ask everyone on the sidewalk to give you a hug! So why should we direct our kids to hug whoever we want them to?
Just think of the types of behavior this forced contact could lead to if you extrapolate it into our children’s futures. (Like if our kids learn that they can be required to touch someone even if it makes them uncomfortable. Or if they grow up feeling like they have to have bodily contact with certain people to make them happy.) Teen girls with boyfriends who they’re trying to please might feel that using their body is the norm, or even expected of them. If girls learn early on that someone else can dictate what they do with their bodies despite their discomfort, they might feel that it’s okay to let other people decide their actions for them.
Kids have the right to their own bodies. We don’t own their bodies and we shouldn’t act as if we do. They should have the right to decide if they want to touch someone or if someone is allowed to touch them, even if it is just a close relative. By attempting to control what they do with their bodies, we don’t let them develop that independence, personal autonomy, and the ability to decide who they hug, touch, or kiss early on.
I know that you’re now envisioning lots of awkward moments with visiting relatives, but there are positives to letting our kids decide! The upside of giving our kids this freedom is that when a child can choose who she gives her physical affections to, those acts become all the more genuine. The recipient of that hug will know that it comes from the heart. And while early on, grandma’s feelings might be a little hurt, when and if our kids finally come around she’ll know that it’s truly from a place of love.