My toddler shyly buried her head in my shoulder as we greeted her grandparents, whom she hadn’t seen in over six months. They had been eagerly anticipating this reunion, but at the moment, she wasn’t feeling even remotely close to comfortable with them.
Beaming, they reached for her, and I felt her little hands dig deeper into my shoulder blades. I leaned in, as though part of me wanted to hand her over into their waiting arms, but I just couldn’t do it. Even the awkward “group hug” that resulted felt like a betrayal and an invasion of her personal space. Equally as strong was the sense that I had disappointed her grandparents, that my unwillingness to pry my child off my body and allow them to envelop her with hugs and kisses was somehow rude. I smiled apologetically, murmuring that she would warm to them soon, as if it were my duty to produce a willing, affectionate child for them to cuddle. And what if she never wanted to give them a hug? Wouldn’t that be monumentally disappointing to them, two 80-year-old people who had driven nearly 12 hours to see us?
Regardless of the disappointment factor, my husband and I have decided that we will not force either of our children to hug or kiss anyone when they do not want to, including us. When I watch my daughter withhold affection from my husband, it makes me cringe. She freely hugs and kisses me multiple times a day (truth be told, I suspect she’s seeking the nearest tunnel back to the womb), but there are many days when she refuses to hug or kiss Daddy when he comes home from work or at bedtime. As much as I hate it, we never insist she do it.
Growing up as a nice Lutheran girl in the Midwest during the 1980s, I was fed politeness and caretaking skills along with my morning Corn Flakes. Making sure that other people feel comfortable is one of my superpowers. I was raised to consider other people’s feelings, share with my friends, and consider guests’ preferences before my own. I was the quintessential good girl.
I am still a firm believer in kindness, compassion, and striving to make people feel comfortable and welcome. I am generally a very warm person, but I also believe that the insidious focus on using our bodies to make others feel good is doing great damage to children, both male and female. Forcing a writhing, screaming toddler or a sulky 6-year-old to be embraced by someone who potentially elevates their blood pressure and makes their skin crawl is not the way to instill manners and thoughtfulness.
By teaching our children that they get to choose whom they hug, we are empowering them to be in charge of their own bodies rather than encouraging them to prioritize an adult’s (or another child’s) feelings above their own comfort and safety. As the Parenting Safe Children workshop teaches, allowing our children to set their own boundaries in terms of physical affection is an excellent practice to help safeguard them from becoming victims of sexual abuse.
Does that sound like a stretch? It’s not. These deeply subtle mentalities are often unconscious, but they are powerful. A little girl worrying that she might hurt her teenage cousin’s feelings if she tells him he can’t get in bed to “cuddle” with her, or a little boy who lets the teenage girl next door tickle him even though it makes him uncomfortable, is the first step to opening the door to abuse. Yes, we should learn to politely accept the birthday present we don’t actually care for. Yes, we should refrain from announcing that Aunt Edna’s lasagna tastes awful. But we draw the line at sacrificing our own bodies for another’s pleasure.
What if preventing sexual abuse is just one of the benefits of teaching our children they have the right to refuse affection? Instilling these values could potentially empower our daughters not to have sex before they actually want to, lest they succumb to the horror of disappointing or offending their boyfriends. If young girls are socialized to comfort and please others with their bodies, what hope to they have of turning down a teenager who wants to go further than they do? Perhaps by internalizing this practice, our girls will reduce the chances of sleeping with their bosses to get ahead. Maybe they’ll even stop faking orgasms or staying with a man even though he’s terrible in bed.
If we can stop unconsciously teaching our children to put aside their own comfort, the sanctity of their bodies, in favor of someone else’s pride, preferences, or happiness, their relationships will be healthier throughout their lives. And it will be significantly easier to teach their own children how to set healthy physical boundaries.
With this seemingly “rude” gesture, we can instill safer habits to protect our children from predators, toxic relationships, and succumbing to out-of-date gender roles. It may be disappointing for Grandma and Grandpa, but they’ll survive accepting an air-blown kiss, a wave hello, or a high-five for the greater good of their grandchildren. And who knows? Maybe next time my little girl will run straight into their arms—on her own terms.