I do not tell my girls they must give me affection when they do not want to, so why would I feel OK with someone else pressuring them to do so, no matter what the situation (or relation)? Forcing young children do something with their body they do not want to do rubs me the wrong way BIG TIME.
The scene: Guests are at my house and as I prepare to leave the house to run an errand, I witness an awkward and blatantly uncomfortable exchange. Our guests are asking my darlings to give them hugs, and when my oldest daughter does not willingly acquiesce with joy and glee on her face, the request dissolves into coercion and downright ultimatums, “I won’t play with you until I get my hugs.” The babies are young enough to throw social niceties out the window and just scream bloody murder at the thought of being handed off to someone other than Mama and Daddy.
My three-year-old, Esther, is fairly composed and she does not use crying as her go-to reaction for unwanted advances like her younger sisters. So, I feel like I’m watching the end of a bad first date where one person goes in for a hug and the other stands there stonewalled. Esther unsuccessfully attempts to dodge the adult’s open arms and what transpires is a weird side-hug situation.
I feel like I should do something because this just looks awful. I want to extricate my kids, and myself but I don’t know what to do in the moment. Instead, I proceed as I normally would and tell my three-year-old I’m heading out. Upon hearing my announcement, Esther willingly rushes into my arms and gives me a big warm hug and kiss goodbye. With this, the guests passive aggressively say, “Oh, Mommy gets hugs and kisses?!”
When I hear this comment my mind immediately reels: Of course I get hugs and kisses because I. AM. HER. MOTHER. I created these girls, I carried them all for beyond full term (very willingly though), collectively nursed them for over a year (a total of 39 months of boob time, again very willingly), I care for them and nurture them every single day and oh yeah… they are my world and I love them more than life itself, so YES, I get a hug and kiss.
Obviously I am fired up here.
In reality, I didn’t say anything and I just left feeling horrible because I was not sure what to do in the situation. I want to be respectful of my guests, but I also want to follow my mama gut and my gut was screaming “DO SOMETHING!” It took me some time, emailing with my girlfriends, and journal-writing to wrap my brain around what was happening and figure out what I wish I had done in the moment.
READ: Follow your mama gut
The issue: FORCED AFFECTION.
Hetter says “I will not override my own child’s currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch. I figure her body is actually hers, not mine. It doesn’t belong to her parents, uncles and aunts, school teachers or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn’t have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.”
Reading this makes me want to give Hetter a big (unforced) thank you hug.
Hetter goes on to say she feels strongly about “teach[ing] my kid that it’s OK to say no to an adult who lays a hand on her — even a seemingly friendly hand” and quotes Irene van Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention:
“When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them… This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’ ”
Hetter’s article quotes a fellow blogger, Jennifer Lehr, who states:
Ordering children to kiss or hug an adult they don’t want to touch teaches them to use their body to please you or someone else in authority or, really, anyone.
“The message a child gets is that not only is another person’s emotional state their responsibility but that they must also sacrifice their own bodies to buoy another’s ego or satisfy their desire for love or affection…Certainly no parent would wish for their teenager or adult child to feel pressure to reciprocate unwanted sexual advances, yet many teach their children at a young age that it’s their job to use their bodies to make others happy.”
Also, I will be the first to point out I have THREE GIRLS, so I am extra sensitive about my girls being forced to do anything physical they are not 100% comfortable doing.
With this said, I am personally not immune to my girls rebuffing my advances for a hug or kiss. If they don’t want a hug, kiss or cuddle from their mama, I don’t take it personally (mostly because I know if one of my little nuggets doesn’t want a smooch from me, there’s a good chance one of my other daughters would welcome a little mama love). In any case, I respect their decision NOT to accept or give me a hug or kiss and I tell my three year old to simply say, “No thank you Mama, I don’t want hugs right now.” And right there is the simple solution (which I failed to remember earlier). I have already started to teach my daughter self-autonomy while still being respectful and mindful of using her manners. No thank you. It’s direct, it’s simple, and it says it all.
After stewing about the situation, I also came to realize I am the most influential person in my daughters’ lives (along with my husband until their peers take over around age 12 – here’s to hoping they have awesome friends like I do!). It is my explicit responsibility to be their role model and I missed the opportunity to be the bright light Esther looks to for guidance when she is unsure. For this, I am truly heartbroken and wistful.
I cannot control what others do. I get it; people want my girls to run to them with open arms as if she is orphan Annie finally finding a home with Daddy Warbucks. In reality, my girls only run to their Mama and Daddy with unbridled abandonment. I cannot change others sentiment though, I understand the longing to be the recipient of such distinct and clear love. As one of the only two sole recipients of this pure love, I know it’s intoxicating and amazing. Who wouldn’t want such love? And yet, I will not force my girls to feign affection. What I can do is influence how my child will react in a given situation by giving her the simple instruction to follow her gut and stick to what feels right to her. In so doing, I am giving my daughter a powerful skill that will become stronger throughout her whole life.
Now, I wish I could hit rewind (like an old VHS tape player), return to the moment I felt my body have a visceral reaction to the scene playing out right before me, and this is what I would like to do:
The revised scene:
Well-meaning guest: “Esther, come give me a hug.”
Esther: <<DEER IN HEADLIGHT EXPRESSION and FROZEN IN SILENCE>>
Guest: “Esther, I won’t play with you until I get my hugs.”
Directly addressing my daughter I interject calmly and clearly: “Esther, if you don’t want to give a hug you can just say no thank you or you can give a high-five instead. You do not have to give a hug if you do not want to.”
This is the message I want to send: She is in charge of what she does with her body no matter the situation.