I can still remember the discomfort of being hugged by certain relatives or church members I barely knew. I didn’t want to be that close to anyone. And I certainly didn’t want to smell most of them either. You remember how adults smelled right? Body odor or cologne or too much perfume filled my nose with a stink that I couldn’t shake for hours.
I also remember the expectation of having to touch these people or let them touch me. I was told I was being mean for not kissing Grandma when we saw her. I was being rude for not hugging Mr. Farvor after Sunday’s sermon. And if I didn’t say “I love you” back to someone who said it, then I being was unappreciative and bratty.
As an adult, I fluctuate between loving to give and receive hugs, and not wanting to be touched ever again. Between kids and responsibilities and too much peopling, on some days, I am all set. And sometimes I sense someone else’s discomfort or indifference toward physical affection, so I keep my arms to myself. I can still smile and be kind. I can still show affection to friends and strangers without making physical contact with them.
I am teaching my kids the same boundaries. I don’t force my kids to give hugs or high fives when greeting someone or saying goodbye. I don’t force them to say “I love you” either when someone says it to them, even if that someone is me.
Instead of feeling warm and fuzzy and loved, those hugs I received as a kid made me feel miserable and guilty. And forcing words of affection didn’t feel right. I felt like I was being dishonest.
I now know that the other thing I was feeling was a sense of obligation. I felt obligated to satisfy other people’s comfort by sacrificing my own. There is no fucking way I will let my kids feel that. I have witnessed them on the edge of this. Grandparents, friends, and even acquaintances have attempted to pressure my kids into giving hugs. Adults have stuck out their bottom lip in faux (sometimes real) sadness and fake-cried, as if it is my child’s responsibility to supply their happiness. They have also played the okay-fine-I-guess-you-don’t-like-me card.
Physical affection and touch does not equate to liking or loving someone. Hard stop.
These adults look expectantly at me, as if waiting for me to force my kids to do something they are clearly not feeling. What I say instead: “Kids, you don’t have to give hugs. You can give high fives or knuckles instead, but you don’t have to do that either.”
Despite the incredulous looks from said adults, I remind my kids—and the adults—that it is their body, their choice. I want my kids to understand consent. Willingly giving someone a hug or a high five is much different than someone taking one, even if the hug is not coming from a malicious place.
When the day comes that my kids are intimate with someone, I want them to feel comfortable and in control of their body. How will they develop a sense of body autonomy if they’ve been subjected to obligatory or guilt-laden physical contact their entire childhoods? How will they understand consent if no one has ever asked them for it?
I really don’t care if someone feels insulted or offended. I’d rather send my kids into the world with a sense of confidence and knowledge that they have the right to say no to anything that doesn’t feel right. This is true with words. I tell my kids all of the time that I love them. But I never expect them to say it back. Sometimes they do and sometimes they say it out of the blue and it breaks my heart into a million pieces. But I don’t tell them or any one else “I love you” in order to hear the words repeated back to me.
Yes, it’s nice to hear, especially when I can feel the love coming from someone’s voice. But love should not have strings attached or the need to be validated.
The painful truth is that you can love someone and not have them love you back. And someone might love me or you or my kids in a way that isn’t reciprocated. That’s life. My kids need to learn how to deal with rejection. They need to learn about consent and respect too. It is hard to let someone down, but it is in all our best interests to be honest about our feelings. Obligatory love is not real love.
I also remind my kids that sometimes hugging and telling someone you love them is hard and can be scary. It’s okay to want to do and say something and just not be ready. No person should ever pressure you to into returning their love and affection. Giving ourselves to someone is a gift. I want my kids to understand this. I want them to be okay saying no, and I need them to know how to hear the word no. I want them to know the unconditional love of someone who sees them and respects the pieces of themselves they are comfortable with giving away.
Not giving (or reciprocating) affection is NOT rude, ungrateful, disrespectful or entitled. I will never allow anyone to project those feelings onto my children either.
Love and affection are not things that can be taken. So I will not let anyone try to take what my kids don’t want to give.