We’ve all been there: You show up for a family gathering with your children, who are done up for the holidays and looking extra adorable, and the aunts, uncles and grandparents immediately descend with kisses and hugs. You know it’s all coming from a place of love, but you also see that your kids, who have taken refuge behind your leg, are overwhelmed by all the hands and lips coming at them.
Most of us want our kids to be kind and considerate, particularly to family and other people who are important to us, so it’s tempting to coax them into giving their grandfather that hug he wants so much. But when we ignore our children’s instincts in these situations, what are we teaching them about consent?
Consent lets others know how we want them to interact with us and our bodies. We often talk about it in the context of sexual situations, but it’s actually a skill we can use in any relationship. Helping our kids learn to assert their personal boundaries and respect those of others helps to lay the foundation for creating healthy romantic and sexual relationships when they’re older.
So if your child doesn’t like people getting all up in their personal bubble, that’s okay. Respect their reluctance to hug or kiss a relative.
Consent is a tricky lesson for parents to teach—we want to raise children with a sense of ownership over their own bodies, but at the same time, it’s our responsibility to take care of them while they’re young, which sometimes means making decision about their bodies they don’t want. We may have our children vaccinated, even though they hate needles. We may deny their request to eat candy for dinner, although that’s what they want. We may insist that they wear a helmet when they ride their bike, even if they hate it. Still, there are many situations where children can practice consent, particularly when it comes to expressing affection and love.
When should a kid learn about consent? Sometimes people swoop in to hug or kiss a child without checking in first. If your kid isn’t comfortable with hugs, suggest alternatives. High fives, fist bumps, waving or just a pleasant “hi” are great ways of showing kindness and respect without touching. If your child is bold enough to say “no” on their own, that’s great! If they have trouble asserting that boundary, you can speak to your relatives or friends on your kid’s behalf.
Talk to your child about how saying “no” to physical affection—especially from people we like—can be hard sometimes. When we care about people, we don’t want to upset them or have them be upset with us. Let your kid know that sometimes people may feel a little disappointed when we say “no” to them, but they’ll be okay. It isn’t your child’s job to make themselves uncomfortable so other people won’t be.
And the lesson in consent goes both ways. Some kids eagerly give hugs and kisses to virtually anyone they like. If your child is enthusiastic about affection, remind them to check in first and ask, “Can I give you hug?” Also, take time to point out others’ physical cues. If you notice that someone seems overwhelmed by your little person’s gregarious display, gently alert your child to what’s happening. “Do you see how your little cousin is pulling away? Let’s give her a little space, okay?” If you have a pet, teach your child to pay attention to your animal’s cues. Is your pet purring or wagging his tail as a signal that he’s enjoying the physical attention? Or are his ears pulled back?
Consent lets us express positive feelings for others in ways that feel good for us and good for them, which is the whole point of hugs, kisses, snuggles and, someday, sex. Starting these lessons early will help kids define boundaries and express themselves in their relationships now and for the rest of their lives.