As a mother of a toddler I am always trying to find ways to allow for my son’s independence, while also teaching him good manners and kindness towards others. Maybe it’s because I’m a therapist, a sexpert (it’s like Brangelina, but better; too soon?) a woman, or a staunch therapist (I imagine it’s a combination of all four), but I have STRONG feelings around building healthy boundaries and setting limits with others.
Don’t force your kids to show physical affection towards someone if they say no.
Every time I see a child being forced to hug or kiss someone, regardless of whether that person is a family member or not, I cringe. I mean would you want to be forced to hug or kiss someone else? And what message does that send our kids: If someone else wants you to become physical with them you have no choice but to say yes, even if you don’t want to, because it would be rude to say no?
What we’re really saying to our kids…
If you tell your child that they have no choice but to hug Uncle George or to kiss the seemingly nice older woman at the grocery store, we are telling them that their feelings don’t matter when it comes to other people’s requests for their body. We’re saying that your own comfort should take a back seat or your gut feeling should be ignored for the sake of niceties or possibly presenting as “rude.” So then what happens when your child gets a bit older and someone is pressuring them to do something physically that they don’t want to? Do they say no and risk the outcome, or do they just go with it because that’s how he/she/they were socialized? My concern, as a therapist, is the latter. And I am concerned because I’ve worked with many people who have identified that the issue around advocating for one’s physical autonomy was the first time they had felt ignored and confused. For some, it was the first time they began to believe that their body was not their own to make decisions about, which in certain situations, is really scary.
Don’t worry there are other options!
When a family member asks for a hug or kiss and my son says no or shows signs that he isn’t interested (tries to run away, pushes back, etc.) I ask him if he’d like to give a hive-five instead. Often times that is a physical encounter he’s comfortable with. If he says no, I kindly explain that we are working on setting boundaries and understanding consent… my son is then asked to say “no thank you.”
Even though he isn’t being forced to hug or kiss, he can still be polite about the way in which he goes about turning it down. But at the end of the day, I’m worried more about his ability to set healthy boundaries than I am concerned about whether someone’s feelings are “hurt” by a 3-year-old. They’ll get over it.
Oh, and when it comes to random people asking for hugs and kisses (i.e. seemingly nice older lady in the grocery store), I answer that question for him: We can do a high-five, if he wants to… but we don’t give physical attention to people we don’t know. That’s a rule.
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