This topic came up recently in a class talking about boundaries and I find it especially interesting and timely. As we enter the holiday season, it is good to remember how we can support our children’s boundaries. Both Kim-Lan and Gia cover the topic in detail and I thought I would share a little of what I learned.
Forcing a child to hug or engage in unwanted physical contact sends a message to children that their body is not their own. They emphasize that it is important to teach children the concept of consent and body autonomy from a very young age, and that parents have an important role in teaching and respecting a child’s right to his or her own body.
Children need to feel confident and comfortable establishing personal boundaries, and understanding what is okay and what is not okay for themselves and others. When parents insist that Grandma Betty or Uncle Ken get a hug in order to avoid hurting their feelings, it teaches children to ignore their intuition or subvert their own feelings, equating affection with coercion to satisfy another. Ultimately, this makes children vulnerable to abuse, or suggests that using their body to please another is okay.
One way to avoid the awkwardness but still be polite is by teaching children an alternative so they are prepared in these situations, like a handshake, or a high five. This still offers an appropriate greeting, without putting your child in a situation that is uncomfortable and coercive.
Remember that being polite should not be confused with being compliant, and that Grandma Betty will get over the momentary awkwardness when your child exercises (and you support) their right to say “No” to unwanted physical affection.