“Can I hug her?” the woman asked me. My daughter was standing in front of her, twisting her little hands, looking slightly horrified at this question coming from a complete stranger.
“I don’t know. Ask her,” I said. My 5-year-old shook her head just slightly enough for me to see, but the woman kept her arms open wide, expectant.
“How about a high-five?” I said, pushing down my annoyance. Can you not see when a kid doesn’t want to hug you? She’s gripping my thigh like she thinks you’re going to steal her.
The woman then had the audacity to look disappointed.
Why would a child want to hug a stranger? I get that you think she’s cute, but that doesn’t give you an automatic right to her affection. Just because she’s a child doesn’t make it her responsibility to help you feel like a worthy, loveable person.
Bodily autonomy — this is the concept that teaches that you get to choose what to do with your own body. Sounds like a no-brainer for everyone, right? I don’t get to choose if you get a tattoo on your ass or not, and you don’t get to choose whether or not I hug Bob down the road at our neighborhood barbecue.
Then why do we, as parents, think we can choose what our kids do with their bodies? Who they hug? Who they allow to touch them? Who gets to plant wet, sticky, kisses all over their face?
I remember one of my great-aunts liked to give out sloppy kisses whenever we saw her, which was about once every few years. I remember the color of her lipstick and the squishy feel of her lips on my cheek. Now, when I smell her perfume in a store, I get the same helpless feeling I had as a child when I knew what was coming. I had to stand there and pretend like getting matte coral lipstick smeared all over my face was a nice thing. She felt like a stranger to me. The affection was uncomfortable, and awkward.
Because I have these memories, I don’t want my kids to go through the same thing. We try to instill bodily autonomy in them as much as humanly possible, starting from an early age.
Truthfully, if my kids had their complete way with what they did with their bodies, they would probably never bathe again. Or brush their teeth. Or comb their hair. Or realize that they had the ability to clear entire rooms with just taking off their shoes. They’d basically be Pigpen and flies would follow them wherever they went. My daughter would never wear any clothes, and my son would walk around with dirt caked on his face like some kind of horrible beard.
But there are ways, many ways, that we do give them full autonomy over their body. I won’t force my fashion sense on them. I won’t make them do anything to their hair that they don’t want to do (they choose their haircuts and styles, though I do have to insist on a good wash on occasion). I won’t make decisions for them about any permanent alterations to their body, like piercing their ears.
And I won’t make them hug or kiss or touch anyone whom they don’t want to. This includes us, their parents, and all of their relatives.
I hope that giving them the gift of doing what they want with their bodies will help them when they are a teenager and I’m no longer by their side everywhere we go. They will know exactly how to say no when they feel uncomfortable. They will know that they are the only who gets to decide what their body does and does not do. They will know that it’s okay to hurt someone else’s feelings to protect themselves. That is invaluable.
Their body. Their rules. Hard stop.