Directing young children to greet relatives with hugs and kisses seems harmless enough. Most parents don’t think twice about it. But the age-old cultural tradition has spawned something of a backlash.
Some people, as outlined in articles here and here, make a case that forcing children to display physical affection regardless of their wishes sends a message that they have no control over their bodies, and that it can even leave them vulnerable to sexual abuse.
So what’s a parent to do? Tell your 5-year-old to offer grandma a handshake?
Dr. Jessica Castonguay of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital said common sense should prevail. She doesn’t agree with the sentiment that telling children to show affection is troublesome.
Families differ when it comes to displays of physical affection. But if hugging and kissing are part of your family culture, there’s nothing wrong with showing kids how to give thanks and say goodbye.
“I think there is a place for respect for grandparents and elders here, and a responsibility to teach children the difference between hugging their grandmother in front of mom and unwanted touch when alone with their uncle, cousin or family friend,” Dr. Castonguay said.
In other words, concern that pushing a child to show affection sets bad precedent can be resolved by communicating clearly.
“I don’t see a problem teaching children how to express affection,” she said. “But when it comes to inappropriate touching, that’s a different conversation. Parents need to be clear with kids and teach them what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. ”
That said, some kids are just not comfortable with physical affection, or they don’t want to kiss certain relatives. Dr. Castonguay said just as it’s OK to show kids the way, it’s OK to back off when they choose to draw personal boundaries. “Model and guide them on how to say goodbye. But if you find your kid is not the snuggling type, respect that,” she said. “Learn what they are comfortable with, what their limits are and work with that.”
Adult relatives who throw open their arms need to understand that sometimes a high five will have to do.