We're social creatures. Physical affection makes us feel good, but no one should be forced to participate, especially kids. I recall some uncomfortable embraces as a child not only with family members, but also with some questionable adults, and I don't want to put my kids in that position.
We've run into this issue a handful of times, but I continue to stand firm. My kids will not be forced or coerced into giving hugs or kisses to any of their relatives. We've taught our children that they have control over their bodies. That no one can touch them without their permission. They get to decide whether or not they will engage in physical affection. This is also means they aren't required to hug someone simply because they did the last time they saw them.
I want my kids to grow up respecting other people's personal boundaries, and I believe that starts by recognizing and setting their own. I don't want my son or daughter thinking consent is empty lip service. It's important that both of them learn they should never be forced to do something they are uncomfortable with and that they should never force someone else to do something.
Just because they haven't seen them in a long time doesn't mean my kids owe them physical touch.
Just because they asked nicely doesn't mean they have to hug them.
Just because it's family doesn't make it OK.
The cajoling started, but I calmly told my daughter she didn't have to hug them if she didn't want to.
The first step was telling my kids it's their body, their choice. The second step was harder—I had to help enforce their boundaries. Not only with distant relatives, but with myself too.
As their mom, it can be hard to step away from wrapping my kids into hugs and kisses, but if they ask me to stop or tell me not to touch them, I respect their request (unless it's a matter of safety.) They are learning that their voice is heard and has meaning. Listening to them exert control can seem amusing at times, like when they will tell each other, "Don't jump on me, IT'S MY BODY!" But it tells me they've been listening to me.
We never pressured the kids to give my parents or my in-laws hugs and kisses. Early on, we encouraged them to offer high fives or fist bumps if the kids hesitated to give hugs and kisses. High fives became the ritual with my parents for awhile until one day my kids started to give them random, unasked for, hugs.
Last Thanksgiving was the first time I really had to defend my daughter's choice. We were visiting with family members we only see once or twice a year. As we were getting ready to leave, my grandmother and my aunt asked the kids for hugs.
Both of my kids hung back. My daughter looked at me uncertainly. She's used to seeing me give out hugs while saying good-byes to friends and family, but I hadn't started my rounds yet. The cajoling started, but I calmly told my daughter she didn't have to hug them if she didn't want to. I explained that the kids have control over their bodies and they have a choice. I stated that I would not make them give out hugs. One of my uncles said my explanation about teaching consent made sense.
After all of that, my daughter said she wanted me to give them hugs first. It made her feel more comfortable to have a choice and to know I was there to back her up.
While everyone may not agree with us, we believe it's more important our kids choose to give great-grandma a hug all on their own rather than risk teaching them that it's OK to guilt people into physical affection. Plus, those freely given hugs and kisses are so much better and certainly worth the wait.