No, You Shouldn’t Force Your Kids to Hug Anyone
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No, You Shouldn’t Force Your Kids to Hug Anyone

You might be sending your kids the wrong message about consent and boundaries.

In the world of #MeToo and accusations of sexual harassment, we should all take a hard look at the emotionally-charged issue of physical touch and consent. While the media is primarily focused on inappropriate behavior between men and women, this topic is also relevant to physical affection between adults and children.

Whether you're talking about grown women in the workplace or children, two things are the same, says Paula J. Jean, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Richmond, Virginia, who specializes in women’s mental health.

  1. A sense of entitlement of the person doing the touching.
  2. The disparity of power between the person who touches and the person who is touched.

“There is an expectation that adults are entitled to show affection to children’s bodies,” Dr. Jean says. “We pass babies around and touch them. People chuck children under the chin, pinch their cheek, pat them on the head or pick them up. Children themselves, in some ways, come to expect this.”

Unfortunately, this expectation deprives children, even young ones, of agency over their own bodies and the ability to make decisions about who they will—and will not—be physical with and how. Parents can help create a safe environment for children to express their wishes, while teaching them about consent, physical and emotional boundaries and appropriate ways to behave in social situations.

“Children, for the most part, don’t feel like they have any choice at all about [physical contact],” Jean says. And, intentionally or not, parents, for the most part, perpetuate this. “We’re giving [children] the message that they don’t really have a choice about it if an adult wants to touch them.”

Your kid should be the boss of his or her own body
Talk to children about the right to their personal space and assure them they are the “boss of their own body,” writes psychologists Rachele Davis and Chiu Lau on a blog post entitled 5 Ways To Teach Our Children Body Boundaries.

Give your child permission to not hug Uncle Frank in greeting, not thank grandma with a kiss for the gift or to say 'no' to tickling. Instead, give them socially acceptable ways to express affection or gratitude, such as:

  • A handshake
  • Fist bump
  • High five
  • Encourage them to write a thank you note

“We can say, ‘You can do whatever feels most comfortable for you,’” writes Davis and Lau, including saying, “no, thank you.”

Given this kind of safe, structured environment, Jean says, kids learn they can make a choice about how and with whom they want to show affection without fearing negative consequences. Don’t become upset if your kid chooses not to hug a loved one. If you punish your child, or they feel you are angry with them for expressing their preference, they won’t feel like they can make a choice again.

Some people won’t understand—but enforce it anyway
These situations are challenging for adults as well. Relatives and family friends may take offense if your child does not want to hug or kiss them. This is where parents need to step up to the plate, Jean says.

“The onus is on the parent to tell others, ‘We are trying to teach our children to make choices about this. We’d like you to ask [if it’s okay to give a hug or kiss] or offer a handshake instead and let [him or her] decide,’” explains Jean.

Some family members are not going to understand, Jean says. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the connection for them. “As older adults, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we don’t have rights to children’s bodies, even when we’ve been their caretakers.”

The right to have a choice is just as important for boys as it is for girls. However, Jean says, when girls in particular learn they have a right to decide what they are comfortable with, and they can practice it safely within their family system, they are more likely to take care of themselves as adults.

Teaching children they can decide if and how to demonstrate physical affection does not give them a license to be rude or impolite. They must still learn to say 'please' and 'thank you,' to greet people warmly and to express gratitude. However, Jean says, they don’t need to be touched when they don’t want to be.

Fortunately, Jean says, most children will want hugs and physical affection from grandparents and other people close to them. But, occasionally they won’t. And, in those situations, she says, the child’s preferences should prevail.