During the holidays families spend loads of time together. But sometimes that togetherness feels excessive, especially when Great Aunt Muriel insists on hugging and kissing every child within reach (even though they’d rather eat Brussels sprouts than endure her affection). Even you feel uncomfortable as you watch your children squirm in her grasp.
And, this brings up a question parents long have grappled with: Should you force your children to hug and kiss relatives?
“Physical touch should never be coercive,” said Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert and TODAY Tastemaker. “It is super confusing to send kids the mixed messages of body privacy and body safety and then force them to do something intimate with their bodies.”
The Girl Scouts recently released a reminder to members that "she doesn't owe anyone a hug. Not even at the holidays." Their warning: The holidays could "be a time when your daughter gets the wrong idea about consent and physical affection."
The notion applies to both girls and boys, of course. Parents often teach their children that “no one gets to touch you without permission and your body is private,” but when parents allow Great Uncle Arthur to force a kiss on their kids, it creates uncertainty. Do children have to listen to adults no matter what even when it comes to their bodies? Or can they say ‘no’ even if the person asking is grandma or an uncle?
“It is about autonomy and consent,” Gilboa said. “Kids needs to learn that ‘no’ is an OK thing to say and expect that people will listen.”
Forcing children to endure affection teaches them a dangerous lesson that people they know can always touch them, said Karen Days, president of the Center for Family Safety and Healing at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Parents warn their children about “stranger danger,” but don't do as good of a job warning them that people they know cannot touch them against their wishes. This means children are less likely to report abuse because they’re not even sure they’re experiencing it.
“(Parents have) to help that kid understand if something makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t do it,” said Days. “Even if that means grandpa or their uncle or their cousin is asking.”
Many adults smother children in hugs and kisses because they want to be validated by a child’s love, not because they are abusers. But parents still shouldn’t put their children in uncomfortable physical situations because they’re afraid to hurt a relative’s feelings.
“It has to be the parents taking responsibility,” said Days. “We don’t want the child forced into doing it.”
Managing these expectations can be tough. Some people will understand when parents say they’re teaching their children about consent and that’s why they don’t hug and kiss. Others will not. But parents must navigate these tough conversations.
“The relatives should be forewarned — and anyone who understands will ‘get it,’” Michele Borba, a parenting expert, via email.
For those who don’t, Gilboa said maybe an apology can smooth things over, something like “I’m sorry if you are robbed of a hug.”
But the experts agree that parents should talk to their children before family gatherings to understand their children's feelings.
“Dig deeper to figure out why your child feels uncomfortable. Is it shyness? Doesn’t know the person? A last uncomfortable experience with the person?” Borba said “Could it be something more? It’s always good just to have a little chat.”
Parents should support their children in creating safe boundaries and brainstorm ways they can connect with adults without feeling uncomfortable.
“It is totally reasonable to ask your kid ahead of time to be creative to make people feel special if they don’t want to (touch) them,” Gilboa said.
Maybe they give high-fives or fist-bumps or shake hands. Or perhaps they share a picture they made, show a video of them scoring a soccer goal, or play a song on the piano just for that loved one. This still shows that children want to connect with their family.
“(These actions say) I want to share with you. It is just my body that I am not as comfortable sharing with you,” Gilboa said.