Dear Munchkin and Peanut,
We’ve known for quite a while that Munchkin typically craves touch — hugs, kisses, snuggles, full-body tackles — but only on her own terms. Through experience, we learned that asking if she wanted a hug or kiss, then respecting her space if she said no, could avert tantrums in response to unwanted touch.
When I read this article, nearly a year ago, I was really struck by the description of adults who often “fake pout” when a child says “no,” which is a form of coercion. Or parents who feel awkward and cajole or push their child into contact with another family member when the child doesn’t want to. I had done the fake pout thing. I had cajoled and pushed.
At bedtime, we typically ask “can I please have a hug and kiss?” For a month or so, Peanut has been trying on a new form of independence, but in the most adorable way possible: a shake of his head and decisive “not to-night.”
The first time he said it, I felt a little hurt. I was able to compose myself fairly quickly, though, for a respectful “OK. I love you anyway,” which is the same response I offer when Munchkin declines. Sometimes one of you says “no” with a twinkle in your eye. My acceptance of your decision is just as momentous when you’re testing me as it is when you really don’t feel like being hugged or kissed. Last night, Peanut even asked, teasingly, “it not make you sad, Mama?” To which I replied, “yes, it does make me sad, but you have the right to say ‘no.’ And I love you anyway.”
Lately, Peanut has wanted lots of holding and snuggling during the day, sometimes hugging me so fiercely I can’t breathe. It more than makes up for the nights he refuses a bedtime kiss or hug. And Munchkin usually wants hugs and kisses and cuddles both throughout the day and at night, too, so there’s no shortage of physical affection in our family.
We consistently work on manners with both of you, too: asking if a friend wants a hug, asking — and waiting for — permission before touching something that doesn’t belong to you, and obeying the “no’s” of others. In all these experiences, the goal is to teach you respect for others.
But each time one of you refuses my touch, I am reminded how important it is to honor your right to say “no.” It teaches you to feel in control of your own body, which I hope will increase your chances of refusal and safe retreat if someone ever tries to touch you in a way you don’t want.
It teaches you to value your own body and your own rights. When I respect you, you not only learn to respect others, you learn to respect yourself.