The importance of consenting to affection
Updated: Apr 9
It’s a scene at any family function, a trope in the adolescent timeline of countless films, probably even a memory from your own childhood: the non-consensual hug. The phenomenon of scooping up a child hiding behind a parent’s legs and showering them with affection is so wide that we’ve nearly become desensitized to it.
But think of it this way: picking up an adult running away from you, kissing or hugging them when they say “no” is deemed as serious harassment, even assault. So why do adults so often ignore children’s resistance to physical touch and how does doing so impact a child’s view of someone’s rights to their own bodies?
Maybe you’ve never hugged a child against their will, but it’s likely you’ve experienced some form of cute aggression. Of what? That’s right - cute aggression. It’s the brain’s involuntary response to an overload of positive emotions. Have you ever seen something so cute - a puppy probably, definitely a puppy - that you just want to squeeze it? Katherine Stavropoulos, a psychologist in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside explains cute aggression as a “flash of thinking: 'I want to crush it' or 'I want to squeeze it until it pops' or 'I want to punch it.
It’s baffling, it’s concerning, it’s downright weird, but totally normal. And it’s probably the drive behind Aunt Kim’s seemingly unstoppable affections for your little one. But the thing is - she can get over it! Anyone can. It’s easy. And there’s no trick - simply control yourself, simply take the rejection. Because what we should be teaching kids as early as possible is bodily autonomy. That is, combining a sense of self with the physical body instead of saying “your body is more important than what you think and feel” by forcing them to give affection to you or Grandma Iris or anyone at all, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
If you’re just starting to implement this kind of awareness explicitly in your child’s life, you may be unsure of how to preface it with your family and friends. All you need to do here is say something like “We’re working on establishing boundaries,” or “I’m teaching my child to ask before hugging people and if you could demonstrate that, it would help.”
If you’re sensing your child’s reluctance to affection, here are some examples of alternatives:
Quick dance battle
Teaching your child that rejection should be avoided at any cost, even to the point of making them uncomfortable, is a terrible detriment to their confidence and ability to move freely in this world. And placing the burden on a child to comfort or indulge an adult is not only unrealistic, but ill-considered. Instead, teaching them that everyone is in charge of their own bodies instills that important sense of self and makes sure they’re always respectful of other people’s bodies too.
Like with any complex concept, there’s no need to break out a powerpoint presentation. The best way to talk about consent and setting physical boundaries with your child is when the opportunity arises and if you pay attention, you’ll find that it’s pretty often.