I don’t think I remember boundaries ever being talked about when I was a kid. Certainly, it was never suggested that you have a say in whether others could hug or kiss you, and it was never particularly encouraged to say what you needed to. “Strange danger” was more the message in elementary school; It was never about personal boundaries or your body or anything like that.
My son James is now 9 years old, but as a baby he was always very clingy with me and not that interested in hanging out with other people. But other people wanted to hug him and hug him and he seemed very adamant that he didn’t want to do that. The message from other people was always that he needed to learn to be around other people and that we had to force him to get used to it. I remember thinking: no, I don’t need to do that.
As James got closer to 12 months, he expressed more and more that he didn’t want other people to hug or pick him up and I began to wonder why I was forcing him. Obviously he was uncomfortable with that. Over the next two years, he began to express himself more. He may not have been able to put a sentence together, but he was able to say “no” and tell us what he didn’t want. However, other people ignored him mainly because they thought they knew better or that he was “just a kid”.
At that time, I think the conversation about child consent or what a child needs was more prevalent. So when people pushed him to do things, I would say that he didn’t want to or that he wasn’t comfortable with it.
My daughter Amalia was a different girl. She’s three years younger than my son, and she was less clingy and happier to be out in the world, so it wasn’t that early for her. But she has always been adamantly against people kissing her. Even us. She always says, “Oh no, no kissing!” As a parent, I find it quite difficult because she is my little girl and of course I want to kiss her. But you have to follow your own rules.
My husband and I discussed it and we agreed that when our children have said that they do not want to have physical contact with someone, we will verbalize that they have said no and express that they do not have to do it. It’s about consent. Now that they are older we tell them: “It’s my body, my rules.” They can choose what happens and what doesn’t.
It’s also about expressing your needs and boundaries and not being afraid to tell an adult or someone older or in authority, “No, I don’t agree with that” and knowing that your parents will have your back.
Generally, my husband and I are more reactive, because we always try to let them share their needs first. I don’t want to be saying, “No, my daughter doesn’t like that.” Because who knows, maybe that day she’ll be okay with it. It’s usually a matter of just jumping in pretty quickly and calmly and saying that she doesn’t like being kissed. I’ll pull her away and ask her if she wants to give that person a hug or wave bye-bye. I try to make it firm and fast without making a big deal.
Usually with people we don’t see as often or with less close family members, they’ll just have a “that’s a little weird” expression or look a little unhappy. Most people don’t say anything or question it directly. With others, it can be frustrating to have to repeat it over and over again.
I think it is very important to teach children, from a young age, to understand what they need, their own reactions and feelings and how to communicate it. I see a lot of adults who aren’t good at self-care and don’t put themselves first, and the kind of emotional and mental health impact that has.
Even with adults, that word “boundaries” can make it seem like you’re being difficult. In reality, you are protecting your own time and energy, and yourself. The more we can encourage our children to do that from a young age, the more normal it will become. He is teaching them to advocate for themselves. That’s why we don’t step in and explain things beforehand. We let them say what they want and need. Then we will support them.
My kids have food allergies, so they need to be able to stand up for themselves and tell an adult if something isn’t safe for them. They are quite comfortable communicating with adults or teachers about what they need.
That word “should” comes up a lot in all aspects of parenting and life. I hear it a lot: “You should be doing this or that.” But why? Is it what’s best for the child from her perspective, or are you just trying to keep people happy, or keep up appearances, or do things you “should” do? My perspective is that anything that helps your children become more emotionally intelligent, or understand that their needs are important, is a good thing.
And encouraging my children to be open about their limits and needs has a tangible effect. I think it makes them more open and honest in communicating with us and talking about their feelings in general. It prevents them from burying what they feel or need, be it good or bad emotions. And I think it makes them more aware of other people’s feelings and needs. It makes them more empathetic.
I don’t see why we should listen and respect the opinions of adults but not listen and respect the opinions of children. Especially when it comes to their own body, their autonomy or their feelings. I wouldn’t say you always have to ask for hugs and kisses, but if a child physically pulls away, shows that he isn’t comfortable, or says, “No, I don’t want to,” then you should listen.
Everyone is a parent in different ways and has different experiences. I know there is a lot of talk about asking for consent. Sometimes I think it’s an extra step for people to understand or accept. My message would be: listen and respect what people say. Adults and children.
Emma Amoscato is a mother of two living in Bedfordshire, England, and the founder of wearesmileapp.com, a mental health and wellness platform for families managing chronic physical conditions. You can follow her on Instagram @wearesmileapp.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As he told Jenny Haward.