Whenever we meet up with big groups of relatives or friends, there will always be a few people who will ask Miss A for a hug or a kiss although they have not made any effort to build rapport with her. Her response? To shake her head vigorously and hide behind my husband or I. Some are very persistent and sometimes I feel bad if they are close family members. However, my husband and I have both agreed that we would never force her to display physical affection to someone she was not comfortable with, no matter who they are.
Hug a penguin? Yep no problems with that!
I have had many parents ask their kids to hug me before they leave and I will be honest- the majority are half-hearted and clearly given out of obligation by reluctant children. Sometimes I have just met the kid and I feel uncomfortable because I am essentially a stranger to them. I feel like they shouldn’t want to hug me, Yes there are kids who are happy to hug everyone in the room, but I will be so bold as to say most kids don’t. Obviously all the parents mean well and are doing it because they feel like it’s the polite or socially correct thing to do, but I don’t think you should be pushing a reluctant child to hug anyone, even family members or other children.
You have to trust your child. They have instincts for a reason. Miss A is very happy to hug and kiss people she knows well and other kids who she is close to, but the people she usually refuses to hug are the people who have not talked to or played much with her. To me, that is fair. She shouldn’t have to hug someone just because they are family or a close friend of my husband or I. Even as adults, we only hug the people we know well and air kiss everyone else. Imagine if we went to a party and then were forced to hug everyone in the room before we left? Physical intimacy shouldn’t be given out of obligation. There are other polite ways to say goodbye without compromising a child’s personal space- saying the words, high fiving, blowing a kiss etc. We tell Miss A she doesn’t have to hug anyone she doesn’t want to but she should not get upset and always decline politely by saying something like “sorry, not today/now” or “maybe next time” (If you have a shy child, I recommend role playing this scenario with them so they can practice what to say).
Why is this so important?
By forcing a child to hug someone even when they’re clearly expressing they don’t want to, you’re essentially teaching them they don’t have a say over their own body. You’re telling them “I know you feel uncomfortable but they want a hug so hug them! You can’t say no!” You’re saying you have to put aside your own physical discomfort to please someone else. This can translate to them feeling like they can’t say no when someone close to them turns out to be a sexual predator and tries to abuse them.
Coincidentally around the time that this issue came up in our lives, I stumbled across an article called I Don’t Own My Child’s Body (CNN). This article reaffirmed everything I believed in- that we should not force our kids to hug friends and relatives. By doing so we are telling them they need to “sacrifice their own bodies to buoy another’s ego or satisfy their desire for love or affection”. Obviously I’m not saying every child who was forced to hug is going to need therapy for life but some kids are more influenced by pressure than others. Telling our kids that their opinion on their body doesn’t matter can affect their body image and make them more likely to make bad decisions as teenagers such as have sex when pressured as they feel they can’t say no to physical affection.
The reality also is that the majority of children who are sexually abused are abused not by strangers but by people they know. Children need to be taught that their bodies are sacred to them and that they can say NO when someone tries to be physical to them. “But it’s only a hug” you might say. Yes, but it’s still a physical act and the reality is that it all starts with a hug!
“But it’s just grandma!” you might also say. Well, yes it’s unlikely grandma is a molestor but there are no exceptions to the rule. You really never know who is a predator. It could be an uncle, it could be the little girl who lives next door, it could even be a parent. Of course, there can be less sinister reasons for a child refusing to hug someone close to them. There have been times Miss A has refused to hug my parents and in her case, she doesn’t want Grandma and Grandpa to babysit because it means Mummy and Daddy will go away. So in her case, I just reassure her Mummy and Daddy always come back for her!
So the next time your kid doesn’t want to sit on Santa’s lap for photos, don’t force them. It’s really not a bad thing. If you ask me, they should be scared of an old man dressed in a costume giving kids candy! Teach your kids that their body is theirs alone and their opinion matters. I’ll be honest in saying it can be tough standing up to persistent relatives but to me offending someone a little in the moment is worth protecting my girls and having them learn that when they are teenagers facing pressures all on their own, they can say no.
* After writing this, someone forwarded me another article called “3 Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me That Consent Didn’t Matter” which touches upon some of the same issues I’ve mentioned here and how it perpetuates rape culture. It’s a good read, along with I Don’t Own My Child’s Body, if you want to delve deeper into this topic.