Teaching your toddler about her body is one of the most important parenting jobs you have. From naming body parts to talking about appropriate touch, she begins to learn about consent and body autonomy at a very young age. So when a relative asks your baby for a hug—and she says “no”— what should you do?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should not force children to give hugs or kisses to people they do not want to, even grandparents. The AAP encourages parents to constantly reinforce the idea that a toddler’s body is her own, and she can protect it. If you ask your baby to hug her grandparents goodbye and she says no (either with words or body language), it’s important to honor her wishes.
Parents need to ask themselves, “Do I expect my child to hug or kiss a relative just because I say so?” If the answer is “no,” it’s important to then talk with your baby about what may happen during greetings and goodbyes beforehand, so you have the opportunity to explain to her (without doing so while standing in front of the relative), why it’s her choice to pick how she wants to show affection.
Explaining your wishes to friends and family is crucial if you want them to respect your decision to not force your child to give hugs. Being confident and kind in your approach with relatives, increases the chance they will hear you and honor your rules.
And while some people may not understand your policy at first, most will agree that respect should not be equated with consenting to unwanted physical contact. A relative who understands this way of thinking will be more than happy with a verbal “goodbye,” followed by a wave or high-five.
Ask your baby to wave goodbye and say “see you next time.” She can also give a high-five, handshake, or fist bump, if you still want her to respond with more than a verbal goodbye. Drawing a picture ahead of time for a relative you are visiting is another way for your child to show she cares. And when you’re with family, you can simply ask her, “Would you like to give grandma a hug, handshake, or a high-five?” All of the choices show respect to the adult and allows your child to express her feelings.
Refusing physical affection should not be equated with bad manners. Children can (and should) be polite and respectful while still maintaining their own personal boundaries. If we force children to show physical affection when they’re uncomfortable, we take the chance they will begin to ignore their own intuition.
And if you are still in need of guidance about what to do, it’s always best to consult with your child’s pediatrician on how to proceed.
About the author:
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son.