It started innocently enough. My young son and daughter and I were visiting with an aunt of mine. At 4 years old and almost 2, they’re at peak cuteness. That, and being generally pleasant kids, makes it even more enjoyable to take them to visit family. I know that I have been declining in cuteness for decades and am no longer a draw; everyone just wants to see my offspring now. My aunt was happy to play around with them and laugh and sing. Everyone was having a great time.
As nap time approached, I packed up my family and got ready to head home. We put on jackets, thanked my aunt for snacks and for playing with us, and went to say our goodbyes. I instructed both kids to give a high five or a hug if they wanted. My son went for the high five. My daughter did neither.
My aunt made an exaggerated pouty face. Then she bobbed her shoulders up and down and pretended to cry, reaching out for my daughter.
The first thought that ran through my mind was, Dammit. Really? You’re going to make me say it? Ugh. I hate saying it.
“I’m sorry. We don’t make them hug anyone. It’s nothing personal. Sometimes they just aren’t in the mood.”
And then we all waved goodbye and got in the car, and no one fell asleep, and everyone napped at home, and it was the easiest day ever.
That’s how it should have ended. Except, of course, it didn’t. My aunt is older, and I don’t fault her completely because she comes from a long tradition of kids getting kissed by their aunts, left to wipe the bright lipstick marks from their cheeks. I get that it’s probably disappointing and maybe feels like a rejection of sorts when someone doesn’t want to return affection.
“Oh, just a quick one.” She reached out again, feigning sadness. “You’re going to make me cry!”
Damn it. You’re really going to make me do this?
“Please don’t make them think you’re going to cry if they don’t hug you. You’ll be fine, but they’re too young to understand that. Maybe next time. We had a great day. Let me know when you’re free to get together again!”
And with that, we hustled out the door. I wasn’t waiting to have my request ignored again and having to give the rest of my explanation for adults who try to emotionally manipulate my children into being affectionate when they aren’t comfortable with it.
That conversation tends to go like this:
“This can actually have serious consequences, leading children to think that adults are entitled to have physical contact with their bodies and making them uncomfortable with saying no. There’s a lot of research supportive of not forcing affection on kids as a means of preventing sexual abuse.”
That right there is an un-freaking-comfortable statement to make to anyone, let alone family. But short of snatching up my child and yelling “’No’ means no!” I’m not sure how else to get my point across.
The very few times I’ve had to go that far explaining why I’m not making my child hug someone, I have felt like a gigantic tool. I am immediately aware of how uncomfortable I have made every adult in the room. But I need them to be aware of my child being uncomfortable, and how that needs to be respected and not ignored. Just because they’re children does not mean they have no right to bodily autonomy.
What’s crazy is the fact that this is uncomfortable for me to talk about because I am actually an assertive person. I am by no means shy or meek, and it’s no secret that I have strong opinions. Reminding a fully grown adult that my children are not responsible for their emotional needs shouldn’t feel like that much of a chore. But one byproduct of growing up in a culture that expects children, especially young girls, to dole out hugs and kisses to those who love them, is an adult woman who feels levels of discomfort saying no.
My intention is not to make my aunt or anyone else feel bad. What I would prefer is for them to respect my authority as a parent the first time I state that my child does not have to hug people. Then we could all avoid the awkward “Please cut the crying act or my kids may become more vulnerable to abuse” speech. No one enjoys being on either end of that.
There are plenty of other ways to show affection, like telling someone how much fun you had or that you can’t wait to see them again. My kids make sweet cards. I know they can’t spell for shit, but that’s part of the charm. Threatening emotional waterworks isn’t going to make a child more likely to want to hug. If they do it at all, it will be a fake and hollow show of forced affection. And who wants that? Wouldn’t you prefer the cute card instead?