Growing up, I was taught that the adults always know better. That if my relatives wanted to hug me and kiss me, I just have to be okay with it. “Be polite. Give your uncle a hug,” or “She just wants a kiss, go on.”
My parents didn’t understand why it was an issue, because it was how they grew up – to obey without question.
There were some people I would run to hug and kiss. But there were also so many people who I just didn’t want to touch, or kiss, or hug. As a child, I couldn’t articulate that feeling. As an adult, I know now that I was not comfortable touching or being touched by some people.
I promised myself that if I had a daughter, I would raise her to be comfortable enough to say no. Fast forward a few (many!) years later, I have an almost three-year-old and a one-year-old, both girls.
My husband and I agree on almost everything when it comes to our girls, except when it comes to hugging and kissing family and friends.
“Why can’t she hug and kiss my father?” he asked me once, visibly upset. “He’s her grandfather!”
I struggled to find the words to explain to him why I didn’t want to force her, because he was right – it was her grandfather.
Forcing children to touch, hug and kiss someone because it’s expected, teaches them that it’s okay to be touched, kissed and hugged even when they don’t want to be. It teaches them that it’s okay to let it happen to them even when it makes them uncomfortable. I say this because it happened to me, and it happens every day to children all over the world.
My husband came around when I explained it to him. He still doesn’t fully understand, but he’s letting me take the lead when it comes to this.
It’s not been easy, so I did some research. I read a lot of articles and books and I made a list. This list has brought me back from the brink from when it’s easier to tell my daughter to just hug or kiss someone because they expect it. This list is my lifeline.
“No” means “No”
It’s that simple. If she doesn’t want to do it, she doesn’t have to do it. She still can say “hello” and “how do you do”, because it’s the polite thing to do. But if she doesn’t want to touch you in any way, she doesn’t have to do it. And I will be her champion.
It’s her body and NOBODY has any rights over it
Teach her what her body parts are called. Not just “arm” or “leg”, but don’t shy away “vagina” or “nipples”. Ensure that she knows that these are the sum of a whole and that no one can touch her if she doesn’t want them to. It is critical that she has bodily autonomy over her own body.
Tell her educators
Get her educators on board. What I love about her childcare educators is how they listen and implement parents’ wishes. I had a conversation with the lead educators about how we’re teaching her bodily autonomy at home and they’ve also implemented that at childcare for all children. WIN!
Be the change you want her to see
This is the part where I struggle the most. I’ve had to unlearn huge parts of my childhood and have had a firm talking-to to that intrinsic part of me that hates saying ’no’. But I’ve found that the more I say it, the easier it becomes. So now when my husband asks me to do something, I say no. It’s become quite fun. For me obviously. Him, not so much.
Don’t let others judge you
I’ve had some family and friends question me when I explain that she must consent before being hugged, kissed or touched. I see the confusion, and sometimes the hurt, in their eyes when she doesn’t want to. I’ve tried explaining that if we force her now, we’re setting her up for a lifetime of being forced. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if they don’t understand. My priority is ensuring my daughters are comfortable and confident over their bodies.
No one said raising children was easy. Especially when it comes to teaching them how to love themselves and the importance of consent. But as a parent, you keep trying.
Sulo Jahanath is the Communications Advisor for YWCA Australia with a background in English Literature and Communications. When she’s not busy being a full-time CALD feminist, mother and wife, she likes to read urban and high fantasy novels (and also the occasional romance!), write her own fantasy fiction and enjoys doing most outdoorsy things.