Why You Shouldn't Force Your Child to Hug
As the holidays draw near and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, a common concern is how family gatherings will look this year. Many of us will be seeing members of our extended family for the first time in months. Depending on your personal preferences regarding social distancing, this could be a time of increased anxiety about how to interact with loved ones. When it comes to your kiddos, it’s even trickier. Many parents are wondering what to do about physical contact with relatives and how to talk to their children about boundaries.
Perhaps you’re well-versed in promoting body autonomy with your kids, but in case you’re not, let’s talk about it. Simply put, body autonomy is the right for a person to dictate what happens to their body. You may think educating your kids about this is a no brainer but there are a lot of gray areas with body autonomy and children, and that includes forced or coerced hugs and kisses from family members. Here are some ways you can talk to your kids about body autonomy as well as keep everyone as safe as possible during the holidays.
Set Boundaries Ahead of Time
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published some guidelines around virus spread risk at holiday gatherings. If there’s one glaring reason why you shouldn’t force your child to hug, COVID is it. Holidays this year are, unfortunately, going to look very different for most people. Depending on the location of your gathering, you may be facing more risk than necessary. You’ll have more control as a host than as an attendee, but it will take more work too.
Chances are most November and December holiday parties aren’t going to happen outdoors, but if you’re in an area with milder weather, can you add some ventilation with open windows or screened doors? Consider who will be in attendance and where they’re traveling from. Could you require everyone to wear masks unless eating? Will you station a hand sanitizer dispenser at the door? Can you cut the party short — say, one hour instead of four?
If you’re attending someone else’s party, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with the host ahead of time to talk through the guest list and get the lay of the land. What can you expect from the other guests? Maybe you have an infant and aren’t okay with others holding him or her. Maybe grandpa’s not doing so well but doesn’t feel comfortable asking anyone to wear masks. Maybe your cousin is a frontline worker in a high-risk community. Or maybe the host would prefer to have the gathering elsewhere this year rather than inviting everyone into her home.
The bottom line is that everyone’s struggling to determine their personal and physical boundaries this year. Those who have likely been exposed to the virus — through frontline work, recent travel, or any other means— are likely already feeling a bit nervous about how family members will receive their company. It’s crucial that you don’t shame or ostracize anyone, especially in such an isolating and emotionally challenging year. But don’t be afraid to have the discussions about how you can minimize risk during your gathering. Speak your truth, and don’t hesitate to ask your host for a guest list and the precautions that will be expected.
Encourage Your Child’s Body Autonomy
Before the family gathering, have a conversation with your child about physical contact with family members. If you’re comfortable with hugs and kisses from aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents, it’s still important to empower your child with the ultimate decision, governed by their own sense of comfort. Children thrive when boundaries are clear. Don’t force your child to hug, kiss, or shake hands with anyone, regardless of how close they are or how much pressure they add.
There are a couple of keys when discussing body autonomy. While you want to be clear about children dictating their own physical boundaries, don’t make them fearful. The goal is not to cause hypervigilance or make them scared of hugging Aunt Sue when they want to. Keep your language focused on their power to choose how they wish to display affection, not on any bad things that could happen to them. Keep the tone of the conversation positive.
Also, remember that physical touch has immense emotional and psychological benefits. Teaching kids that touch is bad can have profound negative impacts in the long term. So again, this is about comfort and choice. Things could change from moment to moment — your little one could be fine with hugging Uncle Joe until the end of the night when they’re exhausted and cranky. Hellos and goodbyes may look different, and that’s okay too. Children should be allowed to change their minds depending on how they feel. Finally, it’s important to distinguish between politely refusing physical touch vs. being impolite. Kids should still show respect by making eye contact, putting down the video game, and addressing adults properly (or else you might get an earful from grandma.)
So how do you encourage body autonomy without making things weird or offending family members? Try giving both your children and your adult loved ones some alternatives. If your child is okay with minimal touch, try handshakes, “jellyfish fingers” or fist or elbow bumps. Teach your kids some no-touch options too, like air fives, thumbs up, and blowing kisses.
If an adult comes in for a hug or kiss and your child doesn’t want one, you might help them out by saying, “How about an elbow bump instead?” Most family members won’t press the issue. However, a few might, especially those with the bigger generational gaps. In that case, it might be good to sit down with the relative and explain the basics of teaching children about body autonomy. You don’t need to get into a heated debate or go to great lengths to defend your position. Just kindly explain that this is how things work with your family in your house, but it doesn’t mean that the relative is any less loved or appreciated.
Practice Healthy Holiday Celebrations
There are lots of ways to make your party or any celebration you attend a success, even during these times. But it’s vital to start with knowing your own boundaries and which safety practices (or lack thereof) you will or won’t tolerate from family members. In regards to the virus, consider bringing some child-friendly cotton or disposable face masks and hand sani along, especially if you know that keeping a six-foot radius from every guest is unlikely to happen. Consider dropping in for a few minutes to spread your holiday cheer without staying for dinner.
And we’d be remiss not to mention a virtual gathering instead. We know the last thing anyone wants is another Zoom call, but if that’s your most feasible option this year, make the best of it. Have everyone decorate their surroundings or pick a fun, holiday-related virtual background. Host a virtual secret santa and open up gifts on screen. Do some holiday carol karaoke, an ugly sweater competition, or gingerbread house decorating.
Remember that it’s always okay to decline an invitation to any party, whether it’s happening during a pandemic or not. As you encourage your child’s body autonomy, keep in mind that you have social autonomy too. If you’re just not comfortable being around a crowd this year, skip the gathering and enjoy your own celebrations. Who knows? You may establish some new traditions this year that your kids treasure for many holidays to come.