Mashed Potatoes, Cranberry Sauce, And Body Autonomy
As the holiday season approaches, we’re reminded of the importance of family and togetherness. There are so many reasons to celebrate, it can be a bit overwhelming sometimes! We’ve got Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, The New Year, and the list goes on and on! With cooking big meal after big meal, holiday shopping, decorating, and trying to coordinate family and friends coming into town, your child’s body autonomy is probably not the at the forefront of your mind, and who can blame you?
Well, let me paint you a picture:
After a long drive, your in-laws, who you haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving, finally ring the door bell. Your dog starts barking, you’re rushing to pull a freshly baked pie out of the oven, while your six-year-old is sitting in front of the TV lost in their favorite cartoon. Your life feels like a Lifetime movie for the night and all is well. You open the door to let them in and your mother-in-law runs past you with her grand-baby in sight, racing to be the first person to hug your child.
I’m sure you’re imagining grandma squeezing your baby nice and tight and littering their face with Mary K lipstick that has probably been in her purse since the 70s, and giggles and smiles galore. But what happens when creepy Uncle Chester shows up and wants a hug? If you’re like me, saying “no” to hugs and kisses from relatives was beyond not an option. At six, you’re expected to bite the bullet and hug even the weirdest and creepiest of relatives.
Don’t force children to hug or kiss if they would prefer not to. Giving children the option to say no to a touch (even nice touches) is incredibly important for their development into young adults who understand consent. It’s paramount to teach your child that they can say no to any touch, from anyone. Once a child is old enough to dress and bathe themself on their own, it’s a good practice to start asking them before you touch them. If they score a home run in little league or draw a nice picture in art class, ask if you can give them a hug! 9.99/10, they’ll say yes because you are their parent and they know and love you, so don’t worry, you’re probably not going to have to worry about a shortage of love and affection from your pride and joy.
But when you continue to ask and when you explain to your relatives that they’re going to need to start asking too, your child will learn that no one can touch them without asking first, and that they need to ask other people to touch them. Now, this can be applied in a less dangerous setting such as a classroom, for example. There’s been a more recent trend where preschool through grade school teachers will give their students a short list of greetings they can choose from at the beginning or end of each day. These options include hugs, high fives, handshakes, waves, and many others, which gives the student the choice to share a touch with their classmate or having a touch-free greeting. Normalizing this behavior so early on is so useful when it comes to having to translate it into different environments, such as a holiday get together.
Let’s revisit the original scenario. Uncle Chester walks in and runs up to your child for a hug and you can tell they look uncomfortable, or even less than excited to hug him. This gives you a great opportunity to reinforce this behavior. Don’t force children to hug or kiss. Rather, lead by example by taking a moment to walk up to Uncle Chester and explain that you’re teaching your child consent and that he’ll have to ask first. This will show them that their body autonomy is important, and that you prioritize that. Uncle Chester may not be a bad guy or a danger to your kid, but supporting your child’s “no” will be something they will look back on when they’re older and someone touches them in a way they don’t want. Give them confidence that it’s okay to say no and you will still love them when they decline a hug or kiss.
It’s important to follow up conversations like that with a private chat with your child. Let them know you’re not upset about them saying no and that you’re proud of how they voiced that they didn’t want to be touched. Learning early on that they have agency over their own body will stay with them and empower them to say “no” if or when something worse might be happening.
This holiday season, enjoy pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes, enjoy your family and friends, but relax if your child would prefer a handshake to a hug.
Happy Thanksgiving from Koller Trial Law!