Should you force your child to hug a relative?

Learn these tips to help your child say goodbye without forcing them to hug or kiss relatives.

With the holidays approaching, there are a lot of times when family gatherings end with kids being told to “Give grandma a hug or kiss” and kids not wanting to follow through with the request. It can be hard when a child decides to not say goodbye in the way that parents or relatives want them to, but should we force them to hug or kiss a relative? It seems like a simple act, but can send mixed signals about who is in control of the child’s body.

For young children, one of the lessons parents and caregivers are trying to teach them is that they own their own bodies. We teach children the names of their body parts, what appropriate and inappropriate touches are and what to do if they are touched inappropriately. When we tell children they have to hug or kiss an adult—even something as harmless as giving Grandma a hug goodbye—we are sending mixed messages about who is in control of their bodies. In one instance, we are telling them they can say no to touches that make them uncomfortable, but then we are requesting they show affection against their will. So what do the experts say?

It can be a slippery slope according to the experts. Making a child show forced affection or giving affection when they are uncomfortable sends the message there are times when it’s not up to them what happens to their bodies. This can be a lesson that can make them think allowing inappropriate touches is OK if they know the person, something we don’t want our children to ever think is OK.

Many parents are worried that if a child doesn’t hug or kiss a relative when asked, they are going to be thought of as rude. However, with these tips from Michigan State University Extension, you can help others understand why you are allowing your child to choose to give affection.

  • Talk to your relatives. Explain why you aren’t making your child hug or kiss at greetings or goodbyes. Many people might not understand at first, but giving an explanation will help alleviate hurt feelings. When children do decide to show affection towards them, it will be much more meaningful than a forced hug or kiss from a reluctant child.
  • Talk to your child about people they might not see often. This way they know who people are, how important they are to you and what you all will do together while visiting. Young toddlers are often afraid of strangers when they first meet them and the same goes for relatives or friends they might not have met previously or seen for an extended period of time.
  • Offer alternatives. Instead of a kiss or hug, offer alternatives such as a handshake, wave, fist bump or a simple “Hello.” Talk with your child about what they feel comfortable doing.

While this can be a difficult subject to talk about, it’s important we continue to help our children understand they are in charge of their own bodies. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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