I’m a big advocate of teaching even small children about consent. For the smallest children, this often starts by teaching them that nobody has the right to touch their body in any way without asking unless it’s to protect them from immediate harm. In our own homes, this is usually fairly simple to put into practice, as we teach those who will be around our children often that this is how we want them to think about their bodies in relation to others.
When you’re encountering people you don’t see often, however, it can be a bit more of a challenge. Family members sometimes have a tendency to forget that a toddler that visits once every six months or more probably doesn’t remember them from one visit to the next. Kisses, hugs, and cuddles are in great supply from people your child may see as entirely unfamiliar. This disconnect between adults’ perception of the relationship and the child’s can be very stressful for everyone.
There’s a good article at Doing Right By Our Kids entitled “No Forced Kisses for Your Kids: A Holiday Safety Tip for Families” that I’ve circulated at this time every year since I first discovered it. It outlines how to approach the situation and how to deal with conflicts that might arise because of your choice, and includes the following quote, which I think summarizes the idea nicely:
It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. Keep in mind Kidpower’s founding principle: A child’s safety and healthy self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.
Since then, I’ve seen several other parenting sites tackle the topic, and I think it’s becoming more accepted, at least among parents of young children. Your great Aunt Martha or Grandma Sue might not be on top of it, however, so you’ll have to be proactive. Remind your family gently before your visit, and find your allies to help you keep tabs on the others. Let them know that this is how you’re trying to protect your child, and that if they give your child time to get to know them with other activities, they’ll be more likely to get a voluntary cuddle later on.