Imagine this scene:
You've had a great time at a party, eating and drinking merrily. You've made some new friends as well as catching up with some old ones. The party comes to a close and just as you head towards the door the host tells you "you can't leave until you kiss my friend and let him touch you". You don't want to be touched by this man, least of all feel his lips on yours, but your friend forces you. "Come on, be a good girl", "show some respect, it isn't nice to say 'no'". You can't believe your friend is forcing you to be touched by somebody you don't want to. What sort of a friend would force you to have somebody's hands on your body against your wishes? If your friend really cared about you they wouldn't just accept it when you said "no", they would protect your decision.
This scene is lived by thousands, if not millions, of children every single day.
When your child grows up, would you like them to have a strong sense of body autonomy? Would you like them to not feel scared to say "no" if somebody touched them in a way they didn't like?
The desire for children to grow up to be confident enough to say "no" is in sharp contrast to the behaviour of many parents, when they make their child hug and kiss relatives against the child's wishes. If body autonomy matters in the teen and adult years, why doesn't it matter in childhood?
It isn't a 'mark of respect' for a child to hug or kiss an adult they don't wish to have physical contact with. It is forcing a child to do something with their body against their will. Why should children show respect to adults when adults rarely show them respect in return? The adult in question is presumably mature enough to not take offence at the child's reluctance to hug and kiss them and intelligent enough to understand that this reluctance is not in anyway related to their level of love towards them.
If you want your child to grow up with the confidence to say "no", or "stop", you have to show them the same courtesy from a very early age. Children don't belong to us, just like other family members are not our possessions. If we would not dream of touching a relative without their permission, or forcing them to touch us, we should apply the same courtesy to children.
So, what if your child refuses to hug or kiss your friends and relatives?
First up, explain to the adults why you are not making your child hug or kiss them. Next, you may want to suggest other alternatives to your child:
"Would you like to give Grandad a hug, a handshake or a 'high five'?"
"Would you like to give Aunty a kiss on the cheek, blow her a kiss or give her a big smile?"
"Would you like to tell Granny that you love her, give her a hug, or wave goodbye?"
Each of these helps the child to express their feelings and shows respect and appreciation for social customs. Importantly though, they allow the child to make a choice about who they make physical contact with. They allow the child to feel safe in saying "no".
A child who feels confident to say "no" in the early years may in turn feel more confident to tell somebody to "stop" when they get older. Body autonomy matters at every age, not just the teens onwards. If you want your child to be able to say "no" when they are older, start by respecting their wishes now.
For more on how to raise emotionally healthy children see 'The Gentle Parenting Book'.
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