It’s essential that children learn and trust they have absolute agency over their bodies no matter who is seeking their affection. 

Adults sometimes see one toddler hugging another and think, “Oh, isn’t that sweet!” but not all hugs are wanted, and no child should have to acquiesce to a hug, a kiss or a tickle they don’t want. We can’t expect an excited toddler to slow down long enough to observe that his friend doesn’t want a hug and we can’t expect his friend, who is just learning language, to be able to summon up, “No!” as they’re being exuberantly squeezed.

There’s a tendency to diminish these kinds of experiences between young children to, “He’s just being cute” or “That’s how toddlers behave.” But when we don’t support the uncomfortable child in these situations, the unspoken message is, “Don’t make a big deal of it.” Adults rarely hesitate to set boundaries when a toddler hits or pushes, but boundaries around unwanted physical contact – touching, hugging or kissing – should be just as clearly and firmly set. While the hugger may mean no harm, the other child’s discomfort needs to be addressed. 

Just as with any sort of conflict, narrating helps both children to pay attention to themselves and to the other, and to learn. To the hugger, we can say something like, “It looks like she doesn’t want to be hugged right now” and to the child being hugged, “You’re pulling away. You don’t want a hug now.”

Unwanted affection doesn’t come only from peers, of course. Parents often have to diplomatically navigate with grandparents and other family members. Because the power dynamic between an adult and young child is so wide, it’s especially important to advocate for children when an adult is seeking affection, to help the child learn that it’s okay to say, “No” to unwanted physical affection, from anyone.

If your baby’s face clouds over as grandma reaches in to extract her from your arms, you can say something like, “I know you want to hold her, but I think she needs some time to feel more comfortable, so I’m going to hold her for a while.” If your toddler hides behind your legs as his well-meaning grandpa reaches out and aggressively demands, “Come here and give me a hug,” you can speak up for him. “It looks like he’s not ready to give hugs yet.” If the thought of advocating like this makes you uncomfortable, it may help to have a separate conversation with your family member or friend about the importance of consent.

All too often, girls especially, receive implicit and explicit messages that they should be nice, sweet and compliant. Instead, let’s support all children to learn to confidently speak up for themselves. We can:

  • support children to pay attention to what feels comfortable and what doesn’t,
  • affirm that all feelings are valid, and
  • teach children that they never have to accommodate anyone who pursues affection they don’t want to give.

Let’s help children begin to learn about consent from the very beginning of life.