No, your kids don't have to hug Auntie Amazing. Even if she bought them a pony.
Kids do not like to be forced to provide affection on demand any more than grown ups do. Yet, we continue to do it to them. Here are some thoughts on why that is and some suggestions to help get you through the awkward moments.
Teach kids bodily integrity:
Your kids are perfectly capable of making decisions about who they want to hug and kiss, and who they do not want to hug and kiss. If your kids do not want to show affection to someone, and you force or even ask them to, you are teaching them:
-Their bodies do not belong to them.
-They do not get to choose who touches them.
-Coercive touching is o.k.
-They cannot say no.
-Consent is not necessary.
-They owe people affection for all sorts of reasons.
*These are some of the worst lessons you could ever teach a child.
Teach kids to listen to their intuition:
Sometimes kids do not want to hug and kiss someone for good reasons. Maybe their intuition is telling them something about an individual. Teach your kids to trust themselves. It is a terrible lesson to teach kids not to trust their gut about someone who may harm them. If that person is harmless, great, but you still taught your kids to trust themselves, and that’s important.
Practice is not a bad thing:
Someday, your kids may be in a position where they will want or NEED to say "no" to someone. It could be an adult or even another child who is trying to be inappropriate with them. Or perhaps when they are older and dating, your child will encounter someone who is pressuring them for sexual contact. Perhaps your child will find themselves not knowing how to say "no," even when it is not coercive, and engaging in activity she or he really does not want. If your child has a built in sense of bodily integrity and lots of practice saying “no” (and being respected when they say "no"), they are more likely to positively assert themselves later on in life. Teaching kids to practice verbalizing their refusal for consent is crucial.
Teach your kids to respect others:
Teaching your child that they do not have to give affection to people they do not want to also teaches them the general message that people should respect each other’s boundaries, wishes, and bodies. If you want your child to grow up to be the kind of person who respects people's bodies, teach them what that looks like. Make sure your child does not grow up to be the person who does the pressuring, coercing, or assaulting; teach them to ask for consent. Think teaching your kids math is important? Reading? It sure is. But no one rapes someone because they did not learn what a predicate is.
Kids' behavior is meaningful:
Sometimes kids do not want to hug and kiss someone because that person has already been (or has tried to be) inappropriate with them. Instead of forcing your child to give affection, notice who they go to on their own. If they always move away from or seem to have defensive body language around a specific person, let them know they never have to hug or kiss that person, and ask if there is a reason they are uncomfortable with that individual. If your child knows you support them, they are more likely to confide in you. To be clear, not wanting to hug or kiss someone is not evidence of something nefarious. But observing our kids and showing them that we respect their needs will lead to more open dialogue should the need arise.
Forcing isn’t always forceful:
You may be saying to yourself, well, I don’t force my kids, I just tell them, or I ask them. But kids feel pressure even when their parents ask them or gently prod them to do something, especially if they feel put on the spot in front of other adults. And if you consistently tell your kids to show affection to family and friends, you may have already asked them hundreds of times without realizing it. And that is intense pressure for a kid. Let your kids decide on their own to whom they show affection. You should have no say--it's not your body.
Kids need consent explained to them:
We live in a society where too many people do not understand what consent actually is, and that includes people on both sides of assault. It is not uncommon for both victims and assaulters to not realize until years after (if ever) that they were assaulted or committed assault and that there was no consent. Often, this lack of understanding that consent was not given can manifest when assault is not violent. And coercive sexual contact is common not just among adults, but also, in older kids who engage in sexual activity. Start explaining consent to kids when they are young. Make sure they know to get a verbal consent: "May I hug you?" should be followed by a "Yes" or a "No," and kids should be taught to look at body language and pay attention to tone of voice, too. (And when they are older, explain that it is always a no, do not even ask, if the person is inebriated. But that's later--for the purposes of this article, we are talking about little ones, who, I hope, are not drinking. :))
Other adults may not feel comfortable when you make your child hug them:
The person you are making your child hug and kiss may not want to be forced into it either. Some grown ups are perfectly happy with a “Hi” and do not want to hug your kid any more than your kid wants to hug them. Also, some adults do not want to participate in you forcing your kid to hug them, even if they would love the hugs. I have had this done to me, and I really dislike it. I have friends who will say, “Go hug Aunt….” And I always say, “No, that’s o.k.” I really, really do not want to participate in someone telling their kid to hug me. I have no desire to be a part of that. But, if a child hugs me on their own, I am blown away and super touched, and I will take all of those hugs, any day!
You may be making your child compensate for your feelings:
Some of your family and friends, who love your kids to death, may want so badly to hug them and kiss them all over their cute little faces. You know they mean well, and you may want to reward your amazing Aunt for buying your kid a really great gift for her birthday. And you may feel awkward in these situations. Still, do not make your kid do it. Your child is not being rude, and your amazing Aunt will have to settle for a thank you. Your kid’s bodily integrity is always more important than your Aunt’s hurt feelings. And you do not get to offer up your child's affection as payment or reward for anything. They really want a hug? Too bad. You are your child’s advocate, not theirs.
You wouldn't like it:
Wouldn’t it be strange and awful if someone were always telling you who to hug and kiss? Don’t do it to kids. They are not dolls. Consider how you would feel if you were expected to hug and kiss your boss because she/he gave you a promotion? You would instinctively know it was sexual harassment and feel all the feelings. Kids are also fully functioning people with all the same feelings about their bodies that we should respect, just like anyone else. You hug and kiss who you want, and let them see that. They will show affection on their own, when they feel comfortable.
Here are some suggestions to deal with the moments when someone wants affection from you child, and they do not want to give it:
1. If this person is someone I feel comfortable hugging, I say, “I’ll give you a hug!” And I walk over with open arms, and I offer the hug. I have never been refused. And the matter is always understood to be settled.
2. I explain, “He doesn’t feel like hugging, and that’s o.k.” Big smile.
3. I casually say to my child, in front of the adult, “You do not have to hug if you do not want to. Can you say ‘Hi’ instead?” You can also offer your child to hi five or fist bump if they would like (also up to them). Adults love to fist bump with kids—it’s a thing.
4. If an adult really doesn’t understand, and they complain about a lack of affection, I simply explain to them why we do not force our son to hug and kiss; I am my child’s advocate—I am not anyone’s personal child hug deliverer. And neither are you.
Last thoughts on talking to kids:
When your kids are old enough to understand, talk to them about these situations. I have told my son, in clear terms, “You never have to hug or kiss anyone you do not want to, including me. It’s always up to you." My son is not a hugger of people he does not know--even most people he does know. But if he likes someone, he is the hugger of all huggers. And I remind him to evaluate the body language of his friends and to ask his friends before hugging. He has learned that when he asks, sometimes he gets a yes, and sometimes he gets a no. And that is good information. This is part of what consent education looks like in young children. You are your child's advocate and teacher; do not be afraid to teach them consent. It could be the most important lessons they ever learn.
*If you do not know where to start, I recommend reading to your kids about consent. A good place to begin might be the book, Let's Talk about Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect by Sanders and Jennings.