I have a toddler people want to touch. People in grocery stores, people at the park, people who are decades older than she is, people who are mere months older. Imagine a 2 ½-foot-tall marshmallow with big Bambi eyes who is constantly giggling; wouldn’t you want to see what it felt like to just squeeze it a little?
The difference is that my daughter is a human child, entitled to the same bodily autonomy now as she will be when she is a tween, teen and adult woman. So along with teaching her to drink from a cup, I find myself teaching a 1-year-old how to say no to unwanted touching, even from people she loves. Even from me. At least it’s a word toddlers are good at.
We already know what happens to the human brain around cute babies: the release of dopamine, the same chemical produced when people fall in love, have sex or take drugs. Cute baby animals have the same effect, according to the non-porn sections of the Internet. So moms learn to expect a lot of hands and faces coming close to their infants and brace themselves for a quick intervention (or liberal use of wet wipes afterwards). We get good at acting as gatekeepers.
By the time kids are mobile, however, the touching impulse usually starts to fade. Maybe it’s because most toddlers are in constant motion, or they have perpetual runny noses, or you can tell just by looking at them that they’re sticky. Friends and strangers alike seem less compelled to make physical contact, and instead try (mostly in vain) to engage toddlers in coherent conversation. This was the natural progression for my first two kids, and it was a relief to know that other people’s hands weren’t constantly reaching for them as the physical distance between my body and theirs continued to grow.
It’s been different with my youngest daughter. Though fully mobile, she rarely runs away from a crowd, preferring instead to dive right in and connect with everyone she sees by smiling, laughing and repeating “Hi!” and “High five!” until you melt. She has also held on to all of the delicious rolls of her late infancy and her skin feels like satin. Every day, I watch as people’s eyes land on her and their hands give a little involuntary twitch.
But that doesn’t mean you get to touch her, or any other toddler, just because it feels good to you. Toddlers aren’t puppies or those stuffed animals with the oversized heads and enormous sparkly eyes. They may need a parent or caregiver to help them bathe or change their diaper, but they get to decide who hugs, pets, tickles or kisses them. They understand enough to respond to those requests, and if they say no, the word means the same as it would coming from any older person.
On its face, this sounds kind of harsh, a little over the top. And I’ll admit, it’s a lesson that has been hard to teach certain people in my daughter’s life – people who adore her and have only loving intentions when they reach for her. Even her siblings, my husband and I have had to reluctantly learn to recognize boundaries that didn’t exist in the same way when she was a baby. We are getting better at letting her ask or show us she wants to be picked up or hugged, and making sure she sees that when she says “no” or “stop,” we back off.
When it comes to my kids, I wish I was exempt from these rules. But if we want our children to self-advocate and seek consent from others later in life, we have to start respecting their personal space early and make sure they understand that they are entitled to it.
So let’s all try to be a little better about the toddler touching. When the snuggles they give us are freely given, they will feel even better.
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