As Latinas, I’m sure we have all dealt with the onslaught of besos y abrazos that rain down like a tsunami with every family gathering. We were raised to always give bendiciones to our abuelos and elders, and that most definitely came with a healthy helping of physical affection.
Well, I’m here to say: MY CHILD DOES NOT HAVE TO GIVE YOU A HUG!
I know a collective gasp probably just rocked the room, but real talk; we shouldn’t force our children into situations that make them physically uncomfortable. For example, my son is incredibly affectionate with his father and I. But in preschool, he’s just not that kid that is always running to the teachers for hugs and physical reassurance. He prefers to get that from those closest to him and from those he feels most comfortable with. Sure, if he falls down or he’s sad and the teachers offer a hug, he’ll lean in for one, but it’s his choice.
I understand that all the tios, titis, primas and extended family want to shower him with love and affection (especially if they haven’t seen him for a long time) but the reality of the matter is that he gives hugs and kisses when he is good and ready and I don’t think it’s okay to force him to do more than what he’s comfortable with. How do we expect to raise children who fully understand the meaning of consent, if from a very early age we are showing them that they don’t have autonomy over their own bodies?
“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “but the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older. Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help.”
Kids go through lots of different stages, from the super-clingy phase where they realize as babies that, whoa — mami and papa are actually different people from me — to the moment where they development object permanence and realize that just because you are in a different room or they can’t see you doesn’t mean your gone forever. We wouldn’t force them to speed through any of those normal developmental phases, so why would we force them into awkward physical interactions that may directly contradict with the developmental phase they are going through right now?
There are so many reasons not to force this issue, from trying to avoid teaching your child that they don’t have control over their own physical bodies, to implying that physical contact is the only way to demonstrate affection. But the most insidious of them all is that it sends a message that adults are allowed to touch children how they want, when they want, regardless of what the child’s preference is. And that is seriously dangerous.
We should all protect and rejoice in our bodily autonomy, and we should encourage our children to do the same. When and if they feel comfortable around adults in the family, they can and will come around to showing them love in the ways they know how. We just have to give them the time and the space to figure it out and make sure that as the adults, we don’t take it personally. We are, after all, talking about children!