Marathana Prothro is assistant professor of communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University. She lives in Bluffton with her husband and their son. This piece originally ran on the Dove’s Nest website.
Oh, the awkwardness of unsolicited hugs. Most parents have experienced uncomfortable—even dreaded—moments when our child refuses to hug or kiss someone who truly has the purest of intentions.
I think we too often cave to societal pressures to either avoid embarrassment or protect the feelings of others. Instead, we should empower children to trust and respect their own intuition and set their own boundaries.
Now parents of a five-year-old boy, my husband and I have implemented a rule in our home: we are each the boss of our own body. No one gets to tell us what to do with it, even if it hurts their feelings or makes them mad.
Here are some of our family’s strategies for living into this rule:
- We try to help our son recognize and name his feelings—both so that we can help him and so that he can learn to trust himself. Having conversations in a separate space from the would-be hugger or kisser helps us to be more detached from the moment and process together what’s going on. It also reinforces that our home is a safe place to talk about things that make us feel uncomfortable.
- We let relatives and other friends know about our family rule that our son does not have to hug or kiss or even give a high five to anyone if he doesn’t want to. People understood and were supportive, especially after we explained our goal of setting a pattern for our son to never feel obligated to do something with his body that makes him feel uncomfortable or sad.
- We have role played together how to put up our arm and say no when approached by someone who wants inside our Circle of Grace. This has been paired with discussion surrounding how people who love us will respect us and how we need to respect others who may not want to be touched.
- When necessary, if would-be touchers persist in spite of our son’s attempt to stop the interaction, we have placed ourselves between them and our son and given voice to his desires. “He doesn’t want to be touched. Leave him alone.” By modeling the direct, assertive language for him (even though it can be uncomfortable), we hope he learns that it’s okay to stand up for himself.
- On the other hand, we have intervened when our son infringes on another person’s space. We encourage him to ask people whether he may hug or kiss them. It’s a small but significant step toward nurturing a healthy expectation of consent. We’ve also told the other child’s parent if he has violated a peer’s space as a way of practicing transparency and accountability.
With all these practices comes the reality that we, too, must respect his wishes. Yes, I will feel sad to occasionally not get a night-night kiss. Sure, I’m going to feel my pulse increase when another parent rolls their eyes at our practices.
That’s when I remind myself my son is a whole person and my priority is to help him learn to respect and love himself so that he can respect and love others.