There are many people in our children’s lives who love them and want to express their affection with hugs and kisses. The only problem is that toddlers are often decidedly less keen on sharing these gestures.
“I went through this with both sets of grandparents,” says Karen Bleakley, whose parents live stateside and see her kids a few times a year. “My mom is a bear hugger. She’d want to squeeze the life out of my kids when they were really young, and they hated it. Kids don’t want to be hugged like that, especially by people they consider strangers, whether related or not. My mother-in-law, who lives in the next town over, sees the kids more frequently but would never take no for an answer when they didn’t want to hug or kiss her. She’d say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be sad if I don’t get a hug.’”
In Bleakley’s view, it’s not OK for grown-ups to push kids to be affectionate with relatives as a sign of respect. “I don’t believe my kids should have to hug or kiss anyone, ever. I’m tactful but firm,” says Bleakley.
That’s the right approach, says Today’s Parent columnist and author Kathy Lynn. “Nowhere does it say that it’s good manners to hug and kiss people.” These gestures are choices people make based on their comfort level, and if a young child isn’t comfortable, then he shouldn’t be forced to do it. “Kids need to understand from a young age that they are the owners of their bodies. If we want children to be able to say no, we have to give them permission to do this when they’re young,” says Lynn.
Nevertheless, parents can find ways to encourage warm greetings while at the same time insisting their child’s personal space isn’t invaded, says Toronto parenting coach and author Jennifer Kolari. “It’s important to find that middle ground,” she adds. If children are protected too much from social encounters, they may grow up to feel uncomfortable acknowledging grown-ups.
Here are some strategies to handle this sometimes awkward situation:
Offer options Suggest gestures your child is comfortable sharing: Saying something like “She’s kind of funny about being hugged, but she loves to do high-fives” gives everyone an out.
Kolari recalls that her own daughter would sometimes hug herself and then throw the hug, or blow kisses, to the other person. Parents can also coach kids to use verbal greetings. For a toddler, just saying hi to Grandma, especially when he doesn’t see her very often, is a big step.
Talk about it in advance Kolari encourages parents to think of themselves as a coach. Before you arrive, you might say, “Auntie Jayne would like to give you a hug when she sees you. Would you be comfortable if I was right there with you? If you don’t want to, it’s OK to just say hello.” Lynn adds, “You can even teach a toddler how to shake hands, which deals with the manners issue.”
Coach the bear hugger Kolari says that sometimes a conversation in advance with the grown-up can be helpful. You might say, “She’s really excited about seeing you, but don’t expect a hug right away. It would help if you can give her some time to warm up. We’re working on lots of ways to greet people.”
Work on the relationship Cindy Dopson, whose boys are five and two, created a “Who Loves Baby” book with photos of key people in her boys’ lives, including Baba, who lives three provinces away and only sees her grandkids once a year. “It was part of our nightly routine to go through the book — so we always keep Baba and her picture top of mind. When the boys do see her, they feel comfortable with her face, and do not act strange or resist when she wants to hug and kiss.”
Toddlers often need time to warm to new people and situations. But they’re often quite affectionate once they’ve had a chance to get to know the grown-ups in their lives. Sometimes a walk in the park or some playtime helps generate the bonds of affection that will lead to genuine expressions of love. And isn’t that ultimately what we want?