We were at the doctors office in an overcrowded waiting room, hanging out by the fish tank. A girl about the same age as my oldest (six-ish) came over, followed by her mom.
It took less than a minute before the girl moved in on my toddler, putting her face down by my daughter’s face and closing in for a hug, as kids do.
As usual, I immediately intervened, gently pulling the girl off of my little and moving my little over to her own space. “Please make sure you give her some space.” I said politely and smiled.
The girl wasn’t phased. Kids usually aren’t. And thankfully the mom wasn’t particularly phased either. After a few moments, however, she did say, “She just likes to show people love, you know?”
I get it. Kids are loving creatures. They naturally blow right past social norms and personal space boundaries. In theory, it’s a beautiful thing.
In the real world, it’s not that simple.
There are the obvious reasons, like germs and illnesses. I mean, we were in the doctors office waiting room. Is there a more germ ridden place on earth? I don’t even like my children touching the chairs, let alone touching other children in a doctors office.
But it also goes deeper than that. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we had to start teaching kids about things like “consent” before they can even speak a whole sentence.
But the truth is, we do. As a mom raising not just three little humans but three little girls, this is a lesson that matters.
Even though my toddler can’t speak up for herself, she still deserves to be treated with respect for her personal space. She is not obligated to receive snuggles and hugs and gropes, especially from strangers, just because she is small and cute.
And it’s not just her that is benefitting from this lesson. Her older sister also likes to snuggle her and grab her and play with her. And even though she is family, I intervene. Every time. Just because they are sisters does not give them the right to invade each other’s personal space without consent. Period.
(I feel like it is worth clarifying that we are still a very physically affectionate family. We do plenty of hugs and snuggles and kisses. The point isn’t to discourage physical displays of affection, but rather to cultivate an awareness regarding their appropriate etiquette. If the toddler is playing and you get in her face and hug her even when she squirms away, that is different than if you ask her for a hug and she gives you one.)
So we learn that hugs and kisses are not something you take from people without their permission. We learn that we don’t need to let other people into our space if we don’t feel like it. Even if they are just trying to “show us some love.”
Because real love isn’t physical contact. It is respect.
And it’s up to us to teach them how to give respect and also how to expect respect from others.
So don’t be surprised if I stop your child from hugging my toddler or pull their hands away from my baby. And if my six year old agrees to hug your child goodbye and your child squeezes too tightly (because kids will be kids), know that I will intervene in order to remind them both affection is about respect.
Because I never, ever want my children to feel like they have to be in a physically uncomfortable situation just to be polite or because they don’t have the voice to speak up for themselves. And I never ever want my children to put someone else in that position either.
If my girls (and every other girl) grow up having learned nothing other than how to honor their feelings and bodies by demanding the physical respect they deserve, and being aware enough to offer that same respect to others in return, then we will have succeeded.