Last Christmas, we took my daughter to a holiday event with Santa Claus. Being 4 years old, she’s pretty fascinated by the big man in the red suit, but she was scared to approach him. Santa turned to her and said, “If you want to tell me what you want for Christmas, you need to sit in my lap.” Before my daughter could even react, I reassured her that she could sit wherever she was comfortable and that she did not need to sit on him if she didn’t want to. Santa got the point, and my daughter chose to sit next to him and happily chat away about her Christmas wish list.
My daughter is funny, engaging, and a pretty cool kid, but she’s not the most affectionate. Actually, that might be an understatement. She will go out of her way to avoid physical contact with others, including relatives. And when my daughter evades affection, people use all sorts of tactics to try to convince her to give them a hug or kiss — usually by demands, guilt, or straight up coercion.
When she was very little, I was torn. Each time someone tried to force her into a hug, I would watch her desperately try to wrangle her body free. I felt helpless. Was I supposed to teach her to oblige to these demands? Expecting her to give hugs and kisses was the polite thing to do, wasn’t it? And watching relatives act so dejected by her refusals made me feel like I was doing something wrong as a parent. But seeing her so upset made me pause.
And then one day, it hit me: Forcing my daughter to hug other people, even her relatives and her parents, wasn’t teaching her to respect and listen to her own body. And if I forced her into uncomfortable situations regarding her own body, I was teaching her that she should use her body to make others happy. And while it first might seem ridiculous that making her kiss her cousin or grandparent could be problematic, sending that message could potentially have damaging ramifications for her later in life.
From the film “Spotlight” to the Bill Cosby sexual assaults to the viral #metoo movement, it’s clear the victimization of young children and women is a very real problem. Each time I forced my daughter into an act of physical affection, I was teaching her to ignore her own gut instinct, which could one day open her up to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.
So, here’s how we’ve dealt with the issue in our household:
We remember that we’re empowering our daughter.
By teaching her that she can say no, we’re also teaching her the value of having boundaries. She does not have to go along with what others want simply because she has inadvertently learned to be a people pleaser. I hope this will set her up to navigate other scary situations with her peers, such as bullying or drug abuse.
We teach her to politely say, “No, thank you”
I get it; when the cute little kid screams, “NO!” when you try to give her a hug, it’s a bit unnerving. So, we have taught our daughter to say, “No, thank you” when she doesn’t want to be touched. She politely gets the point across and preserves her own bodily comfort. We have also provided her with alternative options, such as giving a high five or a fist bump.
We make sure she says hello and goodbye
Just because I don’t make her hug and kiss doesn’t mean I don’t value manners. My daughter is still expected to say hello and goodbye and thank visitors for hosting her or dropping by.
We ask the adults for respecting her space, and we find other ways to foster a relationship
Look, I realize it might feel hurtful that a friend/niece/granddaughter/daughter doesn’t want to give a running leap into a relative’s arms. So I help cue my daughter and the adults around her as to how to navigate the situation, like I did with Santa Claus. By not forcing my daughter to give hugs, it has encouraged adults to find other meaningful and sincere ways to connect with her. And when she does offer up that unsolicited hug or kiss, it means so much more because it’s given out of genuine affection.
When my daughter rejects a hug or kiss from me, I remind myself that I’m teaching a young girl that she has the power to set boundaries and have ownership over her body. I know that lesson is worth more than all the hugs in the world.