What do you do when your child doesn’t want to hug Grammy?

I was recently asked by a friend if I agreed with this article, about supporting children to decide who and when to hug someone.

I remembered times when a distant relative would be visiting and would swoop down on me, wrap me up in unfamiliar smells, skin, and affection, and I’d stiffen, and wait for it to be over, and then keep my distance from that person. So, yes, friend, yes, I agree with that article, wholeheartedly.

But not just because unfamiliar people’s good intentions can result in discomfort for a child, but also because this is the beginning of teaching consent.

Consent, a popular world in today’s media, is the permission given to another to allow that person to touch their own body. Hugs, kisses, tickles, and intimate relations.  Getting consent involves respect for another person’s autonomy, their ability to know themselves and have boundaries around what feels safe with regards to their own body and personhood.

Most issues regarding consent in the news today involve rape. Men, failing to get the consent of women, before touching, grabbing, or having sex with them. When we hear “teaching consent” we are thinking of “an antidote to rape culture.” And while that is true, it is, I believe it begins much earlier than teaching teenage boys and girls to ask for and give consent with regards to sexual activity.

It starts early. With infancy.

What consent looks like very early:

…asking the infant before transferring a babe-in-arms to another person, and listening for an answer in the form of expression, vocalization of joy or upset, a cry, or pushing away, learning in or away from.

…asking a baby if they are ready to be picked up, if there is a choice, and if there is no choice, making sure to tell the baby what is about to happen, before it happens. “I am going to pick you up, get your coat on you, and put you in the car seat soon.”

…respecting and supporting the infant, toddler or child’s indications of boundaries with other people, tickling, hugs, kisses, and affection. Back your kid up. Society often will guilt a child into giving or accepting unwanted affection, “What? No hug for Grammy? But that hurts my feelings! C’mon, give your old Grammy a hug! I might cry….”  Make sure your children know and understand that adults are in charge of their own feelings, they can take care of themselves around their disappointment.

…helping a child differentiate between health and safety requirements for touch, such as taking a temperature, a health care practitioner performing an exam or procedure, and cleaning a diaper, and voluntary touch they are in charge of.

…differentiate between “good” touch (wanted hugs, cuddles and affection and touch for health and safety by a caregiver or health care professional), “bad” touch (hits, punches, pinches, kicks, shoves), and “secret” touch (touch by an older person, to a younger person, that may or may not feel good, often is confusing, and is told to be kept a secret, and that all secret touches should be shared with another adult, no matter what.)

My friend went on to ask why do adults seem to have such a hard time allowing children to dictate who and when they hug someone?

My answer was that 1) it is considered good manners to show affection, be polite and sweet. And parents are often judged by others on how polite and sweet their child is. Parents are often embarrassed by children who are stubborn and non-conforming, so they can be eager to show their children how to conform – even when it conflicts with the child’s own autonomy. This is separate from teaching good manners. It is possible to say no, politely.

And 2) Often we, as adults, need validation of our lovability by the children in our lives. We seek affection from children to show that we are acceptable, lovable, wanted, and okay.  Our own self-worth and core beliefs are revealed by the reactions we have to children’s behavior. If we know we are lovable, and capable, and good, then a child refusing a hug does not change that. We know that child’s choice isn’t about us. “You don’t want a hug? Okay. Thanks for letting me know. Would you like to show me your new toy?”

It is OUR job, as adults, to do our own work so that we can be autonomous from the children in our lives.

In this way, children learn that they can know themselves, trust themselves, and make decisions that are right for them, rather than wrong decisions for the benefit of the person asking for the affection.

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