We all have that memory of being a little kid and being forced to hug some lumpy, smelly stranger at a holiday family gathering. Maybe you even had to kiss them too, and the grossness of those slimy foreign lips is imprinted in your mind forever. I know it is for me, and that’s why I don’t make my kids hug or kiss anyone, ever.
I believe kids have the right to turn down physical affection when it makes them uncomfortable, and I’m certainly not alone in that philosophy. Teaching kids bodily autonomy has become kind of a tenant of modern parenting, and most people feel like their kids should have at least some say in establishing their own personal boundaries.
Slate recently tackled this topic in an essay by Elissa Strauss. In it, Strauss writes about the parenting trend of teaching kids consent and autonomy by not forcing them to show physical affection when they don’t want to. She says she understands the idea behind the practice, but writes that she worries it makes kids more isolated and says, “I was raised to believe that our responsibility to others is sometimes expressed through our bodies.”
Oddly enough, that’s the exact idea that parents like me are trying to eliminate. I don’t want my kids to feel like they have a bodily “responsibility” to anyone — not me, not grandma, not an uncle, aunt, cousin, friend, teacher, coach, or future romantic partner. Their bodies belong to them, and it is up to them to decide how and when they show affection to others.
It might seem like a small thing, but when we teach kids that they don’t have to hug and kiss on command, we give them something invaluable: the power to say no. We teach them that they don’t have to consent to unwanted touching just because they’re being prodded by an adult, and this translates to more serious situations like sexual abuse. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. One strategy experts teach for preventing abuse is simply teaching boundaries and letting kids know they have the power to say ‘no’ when they feel uncomfortable or scared.
Imagine, as an adult, walking into a room full of strangers and being instructed to give someone a hug or a kiss. “This is my best friend,” says your boss at the holiday party. “Why don’t you give him a smooch?” You’d be totally creeped out, and rightfully so. We’d never demand that type of physical affection from another adult, and we shouldn’t expect it of little kids either.
I’m not a hugger by nature, and I don’t expect my kids to be huggers either. Rather, I give them the choice to express themselves how they want to, whether it’s through a hug, handshake, high five, or even just a wave and a quick “hello.” I encourage them to interact on their terms, with confidence in their boundaries and respect for both themselves and others. Kids are people too, and they should be treated like it.