Want to know one of my earliest memories? It’s a strange one… it’s of being picked up by one of my parents’ friends at a party, and trying to breathe through my mouth because the person’s armpits were intensely stinky.
I was probably three years old. I don’t remember who the deodorant-challenged grownup was. What I do remember is that even at that very young age, I knew my parents would be disappointed if I said anything. I knew that I should just be polite and bear the smell until I was put down and could make a getaway without offending anyone.
In the years that followed I endured lots of unwanted attention without complaint, from having to greet unfamiliar relatives with a hug to protesting uselessly to merciless tickling that left my belly sore for days and days.
Of course it’s all part of growing up… social order and all that stuff.
When my own daughter was little I encouraged her to kiss unfamiliar relatives and to sit on the laps of my friends even as she demanded that it was me she wanted.
More often than not it’s all innocent. Adults love to dote over children and part of that means hugs and kisses. But should we require our kids to participate?
Here’s another memory of mine. Every day after dinner, my Ojichan (grandpa in Japan) would hold me in his lap and tell me stories. His breath smelled strong. It was the smell of his after-dinner sake. I didn’t like the smell and had to breathe through my mouth, but I wasn’t waiting to escape. Quite the contrary, I would have stayed there for much longer if my mom had let me. The difference was that those moments were a two-way exchange. Nothing was being done TO me… my Ojichan was being WITH me. Having to breathe through my mouth was secondary to our connection… a small price to pay for our nightly ritual.
So what do we teach our children when we let adults do TO them?
I think that we as a society need to recognize that even little ones should have ownership of their bodies and get to choose who touches them and how. Here’s why:
Your kids’ bodies belong to them.
No matter how small a person is, their body is the only thing that truly belongs to them. This is why toddlers tend to act out in areas related to sleeping, eating, and toileting, why adolescents explore self-expression through the manipulation of clothing and hairstyle, and why so many adults feel that their physical bodies define who they are in the world. As parents we can control every aspect of our children’s environments, but we can’t control THEM. So let’s respect them.
You want your child to know that it’s okay to say no.
Imagine that your child is a teenager. Who can touch her body? Can anyone touch it anytime? Must she give in without complaint if that person is an authority figure? If she let someone hug her last week is she now required to let that person kiss her every time that they meet? Of course not. Why not start teaching these lessons now, when your child can practice agency with you by her side?
You want your child to know that you will back them up.
If you have always told your kid to “kiss grandma” or “go sit on Uncle John’s lap,” you are probably going to have some pretty annoyed relatives on your hands when you stop. While it’s always nice if you can talk to loved ones ahead of time to explain your new perspective, some people may not understand. Don’t be surprised if there is a remark that your child is being “rude” or hurting their feelings the first time your kid declines a physical greeting. This is your opportunity to come to your child’s defense and say something like, “Uncle Mike, we’ve decided that Sara is in charge what feels right for her body. She doesn’t feel like giving a hug right now and that’s okay.”
I’m not suggesting that our loved ones are not worth affection or that it’s okay for our children to be outright rude. What I am saying is that it’s the things that we do now that provide a framework for our children’s internal messaging for years to come.Why not teach your children other ways to say hello? A hug is nice but so is a high five, a handshake or even a silly “hollywood kiss” in which the participants kiss the air next to one another’s cheeks- usually with much lip-smacking and giggling.
And given a little space and time to get comfortable, there’s a good chance that your formerly reserved kiddo will choose to hop into someone’s lap, offer a spontaneous hug, or snuggle up on the couch for a story! Even if it means having to breathe through their mouths…
Now I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below. Let’s talk.