I Will Never Force My Kids To Show Anyone Affection

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
KathyDewar / Getty and Scary Mommy

“Give Grandma a hug hello.”

“Isn’t it nice that Uncle Jimmy got you a truck? Go give him a hug!”

“Give me a kiss goodnight.”

These are phrases we’ve all heard as children or even said to our own children. But why?

Sometimes we just don’t want anyone touching us. If we as adults can have that autonomy, why shouldn’t children? We say that children are people, and yet because they are small people, we take away their right to their own body. Forcing my kid to show physical affection, or guilting them into it (even with me), isn’t something I would ever do. Why? Because I respect that he is his own person.

Growing up, my mom always felt that she was owed my affection simply because she was my mother. Whether it was a kiss or a hug, or sometimes even just wrapping an arm around my shoulders. Even now that I’m an adult, she still kind of acts that way. It’s easier for me to say “no” now of course, but I don’t understand her sense of entitlement over my body and physical space.

It has always made me so uncomfortable, I knew that I wouldn’t impose that same kind of authority on my son. Yes, I may have grown him in my body, but once he was born, his body became his. Nothing annoys me more than that “I gave you life, the least you can do is give me a hug” kind of mentality. Like, no, that’s not how this works at all.

The idea that we owe someone affection as a form of respect is not healthy.

As his mother, yes, sometimes I really just want to feel his little arms around my neck. There is something very healing about physical affection from our kids. A quick hug, or a kiss on the cheek. They’re great, no doubt about it. But in those moments, I pause. My need for physical affection doesn’t override his right to say no. Chances are, if I ask, he’ll give it. And if he doesn’t, then I respect his bodily autonomy and personal space. I can let him know that I love him and value him without forcing unwanted affection on him.

I’ve made it abundantly clear to my son that physical affection is something you never have to give. I’m very physically affectionate, especially with him, but I always ask of we can hug. If he says no, I leave it alone. When he’s ready, he’ll ask for a hug. And more often than not, he’ll ask me way more than I ask him. But it’s because he feels comfortable in his own body, and my respect of his body as his own. Giving him that sense of autonomy has always been of utmost importance for me.

I can let him know that I love him and value him without forcing unwanted affection on him.

My parents come from the age where physical affection was more freely given (or forced?) to adults. If you were saying thank you to grandma, it was always accompanied by a hug. Same with hellos and goodbyes. I never really understood why it was necessary to say hello to someone and give them a hug. Or why a simple “thank you” couldn’t be enough. Why did I have to hug them too? I could never really wrap my head around it, but I knew what the expectations were.

So I knew when I became a parent that forced physical affection wasn’t going to happen. Of course, if he wants to, that’s his choice. But I’ve never been like, “Go give grandma a hug to say thank you for the toy.” Because words are plenty — you don’t need a hug too. He knows how to show affection, and he is capable of doing so, and I won’t even attempt to guilt or shame him into it.

My son is more shy than I was at his age. I have always had a big personality and immediately attach to people. He’s a lot more hesitant, taking his time and sensing clues from me. For someone so young, he’s a good judge of character, and he knows when he feels comfortable with someone. With some people, it’s immediate; with others, it takes time.

We recently spent the day with some friends of mine he’s been around a few times before. He’s never really spoken to them (which I don’t force him to do either), but he knows who they are. At first, he wouldn’t even look at them, but then after a few hours, things changed. Once he felt comfortable, he was holding my friend’s hand and giving her hugs just because. I never once said to him, “give her a hug” — he did it all on his own. Because she gained his trust in her own way, and he wanted to be close to her because he trusted her.

Contrary to the way I was raised, I always felt that physical affection is something that has to be earned. I’m not going to hug you just because you did something nice. And neither is my kid. If you choose to buy someone a gift, they don’t owe you anything more than a thank you. I don’t care who you are — grandma, uncle, friend, dad. Having a familial relationship with someone doesn’t mean they have an automatic right to your body. Why is this disturbing mindset so prevalent?

Same goes with saying goodbye to someone. When we have friends over, I do ask that he at least acknowledge that they’re leaving. So he can wave goodbye, or simply say it. But I have never said, “Hug so-and-so goodbye.” Sometimes he will by choice. And then sometimes he doesn’t want to be bothered, which is fine.

Forced physical affection isn’t genuine and it isn’t fair. How can we as parents teach our kids about consent and bodily autonomy, but then force them into showing physical affection to people they don’t want to? It makes no sense and sends mixed messages. Consistency is the only way they’re truly going to understand important concepts like consent, respecting people’s boundaries, and establishing their own boundaries. They don’t owe their uncle a hug, or their grandma a kiss goodbye, period.

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