For many of us the days between Thanksgiving through the New Year are a time to reminisce about Aunt Margaret’s fruitcake and its ability to last 100 years intact, or Mr. Barger’s outdoor holiday lights being so bright that the local airport could use it as a reference point for incoming aircraft.
All kidding aside, for most of us it’s a time to gather with families and friends to share our affection and gratitude for each other.
But having affection for other people, including one’s family, can’t and shouldn’t be forced. I remember celebrating the holidays as a young girl and being directed by my parents to give Uncle Alex a hug in thanks for a gift or give Great-Grandma Celia a kiss because she traveled so far to visit. I didn’t know these people very well, but just because they were “family” I was expected to hug them or give a kiss, whether I wanted to or not. As I look back on this, was I unintentionally being given the wrong idea about physical affection and consent?
Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift or they are her relatives can set the stage for her questioning whether she “owes” another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.
The idea 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.”
So, as you gather with family and friends this holiday season, give your girl the space to decide when and how she wants to show affection. Many children may naturally want to hug and kiss family members, friends, and neighbors, and that’s ok—but if your daughter is reticent, consider letting her choose what to do. Of course, this doesn’t give her license to be rude! There are many other ways to show gratitude and love that don’t require physical contact. Saying how much she’s missed someone, thanking them for a gift, offering a high-five, or even an air kiss are all ways she can express herself. But most importantly she knows she gets to choose which feels most comfortable to her.