It happens every time you arrive at Holiday dinner.
Just as you enter the door, Aunt Shirley jumps from the recliner, her arms extended wide in friendly greeting. After you warmly exchange a big hug, she extends her arms your kids.
“Give Aunt Shirley a hug,” she says.
You can see the uncertainly in the faces of your kids. Although they just witnessed your expression of affection, you can tell they are hesitant to do the same.
What should you do?
For most of us, it’s natural to want our kids to have affection for the special people in our lives. We want to extend the love and gratitude we have for our relatives to our children, and every family has traditions and expectations to demonstrate that love in various ways.
When it comes to encouraging a child to hug another person, however, we need to be increasing mindful of what we are asking them to do. Although Aunt Shirley’s demand for a hug is coming from a place of love, forcing our children to have unwanted contact with another individual is an act of coercion. Rather than simply pushing our kids into Aunt Shirley’s arms, a better use of these family interactions may be to teach and model consent.
As parents, we must empower our children with the knowledge that their body is their own, no matter the situation. We must allow them to recognize and trust what feels safe. And as their guardian and protector, we must honor the reality that their body is not ours to control as our property.
Here are 3 things parents need to know about young children and consent.
Body autonomy, or consent, in young children is the knowledge that their body is their own.
As early as the toddler years, children are able to express personal physical boundaries. These boundaries are often a blend of the child’s life experiences in new situations, as well as innate personality differences that create unique amounts of safe personal space.
Asking children to have unwanted physical contact with a relative, for example, has the ability to threaten this instinctual safety boundary. This may unintentionally teach your child that they must do what an adult tells them to do, even if it makes them uncomfortable. At worst, in cases of unknown abuse, it may suggest to a child that their past experience with that person are not important.
This is not just about sexual assault.
Without question, taking steps to protect our children from being victims of sexual assault includes conversations about body autonomy. However, teaching young children about consent does not have to have a sexual connotation. Consent is about developing respectful social interactions and modeling how we would expect our children to behave.
Physical play with our kids is a great way to demonstrate this social skill. For example, if we are tickling our children and they say “stop,” our immediate action should be to respect that boundary, even if we know that they are enjoying the tickle game. This demonstrates to our child that those words have power in their physical space and that they have control over their own body. In turn, it models how you would expect them to draw back if another individual were to say “stop” during a time they were playing with someone else.
Honoring your child’s choice of bodily autonomy doesn’t have to be awkward.
Within families, when a young child does not readily show affection for a relative, it can be interpreted as being defiant or disrespectful. However, recognizing innate feelings of personal safety and autonomy should be valued at all ages, even at risk of appearing “rude.”
Rather than let an uncomfortable feeling hang in the air, be prepared to actively handle this situation. In the moment, if you are sensing your child’s hesitation at physical affection, offer your child an alternative. Would they like to high-five or wave to Aunt Shirley instead? What about a fist bump? Much unease can be relieved if the child makes some sort of friendly gesture as a replacement to an unwanted hug.
If you wish, you can talk to Aunt Shirley privately about your expectations and what you are trying to accomplish. Meanwhile, to your child, you have demonstrated the importance of consent for them to model in the future.
Dr. Natasha Burgert is a Parent Toolkit expert and full-time pediatrician based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is passionate about using digital tools and social media within her practice to improve connection and communication with her patients. Follow her on Twitter.