When you see my 29-month-old daughter, please don’t lean in to hug or kiss her. Here’s why:
You hear a lot of talk about consent these days, which is really important. I teach at a university, and my students–primarily the female ones–have frequently mentioned not knowing how to say “no” or not feeling as though there is any respect for their wishes for how their own bodies are touched. That’s something we need to change. We need to help all people feel confident about saying what they do or don’t want to happen to their bodies.
But I’m concerned that we don’t always apply our thinking about consent to children. For example, we pressure children to kiss and hug relatives or family friends, and we justify this by saying, “Well, that’s how we do it in my family” or “Children should respect their elders” or “When I was a kid, I had to kiss my great-aunt and I survived it”.
I don’t think that’s acceptable.
When you and my daughter greet one another, she has a choice: wave hello, shake hands, or give a high five. She should decide who she wants to touch her and how. If she wants to go in for a hug, she can choose that, as long as it’s all right with the person she’s greeting. In other words, both my toddler and the other person have the right to decide what sort of physical contact they are going to have, if any, and they need to agree on it.
I believe we have to start giving children this control over their bodies from birth.
As I’ve written about here before, I refused to engage in “pass the parcel”-type activities with my baby, even though I was often pressured to let others hold her. For one thing, I wasn’t always comfortable with it (and, I might point out, as a new, breastfeeding mother, it was completely normal for me to want my baby with me all the time, but that wasn’t always respected). But more importantly, it didn’t send the right message to my child.
It’s her body–why should anyone who wants to get to touch her, no matter how she feels about it? Many folks said to me, “Come on! People just want to touch babies. It’s human!” And while it’s true that we love cuddling babies, I wonder why others’ feelings and desires should take precedence over a child’s.
A baby or child is also a human. And they also have feelings and opinions about their body. And right now, as one of my child’s parents, I know her best (at this stage of her life, anyway), and I can tell she isn’t always happy about who is touching her or how. She should be able to express that, and my wife and I should support her in that.
Even an infant shows preferences regarding who is holding them.
I can remember being a child or teen and being told I had to give someone a kiss or having no choice but to let someone hold me. I didn’t feel I had ownership of my own body, and as a result, control over my body has been hard to learn as an adult. Like many women, I have felt awkward telling people what I want or don’t want, as though I don’t have the right to say what happens to me. I don’t want that for my daughter.
Instead, I want my daughter to feel confident about her body and to know it belongs solely to her. I can’t expect her to feel this way as a teenager or adult if my wife and I don’t model it for her early on. So we make sure she knows she can say no to kisses, hugs, strokes or any other sort of physical contact from anyone, including us.
If someone–whether a friend, relative, colleague, or random person on the street–leans in to pat my toddler’s head or stroke her cheek or enfold her in their arms and she shrinks away, I respect that, and help her move. Most people don’t take the hint though and often they try again.
Recently, my mother-in-law was at our house. As she was leaving, she said she was going to give her granddaughter a hug. Our daughter said, “No, thank you.” My mother-in-law didn’t protest or try to convince her that a hug was best. Instead she said, “Okay, then,” and happily settled for a goodbye wave. That’s how it should be. I was really grateful to my wife’s mother for respecting our daughter’s boundaries.
I think we all need to get better about respecting personal space and individuals’ feelings about their bodies. And this is a societal problem we can begin to change by giving our children autonomy from their earliest days and months.
So please don’t automatically reach out to touch my daughter or any other child. Wait to see what kind of contact they feel comfortable with, and respect that. There’s nothing wrong with a simple smile or wave.