I recently listened to some grandparents expressing annoyance (and hurt) that their grandchild hadn’t wanted to give them a kiss. Their daughter-in-law, instead of encouraging the child, had said “It’s ok if you don’t want to give nanny and grandad a kiss right now”.
Whilst the grandparents may have wanted a kiss from their grandchild at that moment, if the child didn’t want to, then surely they should have the right to decide?
Protecting your own, and others' personal space, is a key lesson that children must learn from the moment they start interacting with other children.
As anyone who has worked in childcare well knows, when children invade each other’s personal space, it can cause dysregulation in children of all ages. If we are teaching our children not to invade other children’s personal space, then why, as adults, do we think we can do it whenever we like?
We do it from a very early age. Picking them up and moving them suddenly when they least expect it, insisting they kiss Grandma and Grandpa, or, for some parents, everybody they meet! “Give Aunty Jan a cuddle”, I often hear, when the child has no idea who I am!
Parents visiting Nipperbout often entreat their children to give staff members a cuddle as they leave our setting. They then tell them off if the child seems reluctant, labelling them with; “Don’t be mean” or “Oh he’s a bit shy”.
Just like an adult, a child might not always be ‘in the mood’ to hug or kiss a relative or stranger. They might be feeling sensitive, anxious, vulnerable or just not feel like it, and that’s okay!
If we want children to be able to take ownership of their personal space as they grow older, then we need to be teaching it and role-modelling good practice right from the start.
Whisking your child through the air with no warning is extremely distressing for many children and, at best, alarming or annoying! Unless they’re in immediate danger, if you need to move your child then warn them or, ideally, ask them if it’s okay to pick them up.
It amazes me that parents frequently expect little children to kiss and hug people they wouldn’t dream of kissing and hugging themselves!
Allow children to decide who they kiss and hug for themselves and avoid emotional blackmail or frowning just because of embarrassment.
As they grow older children need to feel safe and secure enough to decline if predators try to make them do something they feel uncomfortable about. Feeling guilty about saying ’no’ to an adult is not going to help in this situation.
More generally, teaching a child to be able to be clear about their boundaries is a powerful lesson for the rest of their life and relationships. It can them to better advocate for themself in the future.
This goes for yourself too - always ask before you hug or kiss your child. There is nothing more heart-warming than receiving a child’s permission to give them a kiss or a cuddle and if they say no, accept it and let them know you would love one when they feel able, another time.
You can start by asking before changing your baby’s nappy. This may sound bizarre because, of course, your baby needs their nappy changed, but if you start doing this right at the beginning, the child will learn that their permission is something that is valued and respected. Even a small baby can indicate if they feel safe or not. If the answer is clearly “no” then by respecting this you are teaching them that "no means no”; a good safeguarding lesson for later in life.
NB: If a baby doesn’t want to have their nappy changed straight away then it’s worth waiting a while until they feel more regulated or ’safe’. With a toddler, it may be that they are engrossed in a game, or don’t want to lie down for the nappy change, so you could try changing them standing up. Allowing them to be part of the routine - handing you the wipes or nappy - is the start of toilet independence. We frequently tell children to ‘wait a while’ when they want something but rarely do we give them the luxury of waiting ourselves for something we want to have happen!
When you do change a baby’s nappy, make sure it isn’t on the floor in full view of everyone. I so often see parents stripping off their baby in public and displaying the child’s genitals to all and sundry. Apart from disrespecting their personal space and privacy, there are many unpleasant people out there, who will take every opportunity to photograph naked babies and turn these into unspeakable images for the dark web. Give baby some dignity and privacy by shielding them with your body, at the very least.
To relatives and friends, asking for consent to hug your child might seem unusual and you might even be met with some derision for this approach. This is why it’s useful to explain what you’re doing and why it’s important.
From a very basic level, many adults can’t bear people stepping into their personal space and yet they seem to think a child’s personal space is irrelevant. You can remind them of this if you need to. Explain that being able to understand and regulate personal space boundaries at nursery and school is important, and that you are trying to teach this early on and install some basic safeguarding instincts for later on in life.
Remember that your child’s feelings and mental health are the priority here and that other people’s feelings, in this instance, aren’t as important.