How to Give Authentic Affection to Your Children
“Come here, give me a hug!”
What an innocent statement, but one wrought with the weighty and silent burden of another person’s “need.” I’ve never been a super touchy-feely person outside of my personal intimate relationships.
For the most part, I’m quite introverted in my social needs, and I have a distinct personal bubble. Let’s just say – I hated feeling like a hug, kiss, or even an “I love you” was demanded of me to validate someone else. Why did I have to give when I didn’t want to?
Even at the ripe ol’ age of 13 when I told my first boyfriend “I love you” I was downright pissed when he said it back, but never initiated the affectionate term in return. I knew it was out of obligation and that felt like a lie.
As I ventured into motherhood I realized that this was an area I could make great waves in for my children. To give them the full autonomy of their body I couldn’t demand of them physical affection, but needed to reframe this idea that your friends, family, or anyone for that matter deserved access to their most intimate space – their body and their hearts.
How could I one moment tell my daughter that she could say NO to a boy or man touching her inappropriately and then turn around and command her to touch her family member (or even myself!) in a way that felt equally violating to her at that moment in time? Why was it that giving a hug or kiss goodbye was required when the transition of leaving was already overwhelming enough for my little ones?
They didn’t care that it could be the last time they ever see so-and-so or that they wouldn’t be visiting again for months. What would I say to my well-meaning friends and family when my child stubbornly refused to give them what they wanted? How would I stand in my power?
What I wanted was for my children to freely give and receive affection when it was authentic, relational, and real to them. Spontaneously. Openly. Independently. My husband and I decided that we would never force our children to give affection – or rather we wouldn’t allow others to take affection from our children. They would not become commodities of adult validation.
Prepared to face the potential uproar and uncomfortable conversations, we pressed on. We even shifted our language around affection. When I would like to give my son or daughter a hug I say, “Can I give you a hug?” and then I let them respond and act accordingly. I never say “Come and give me a hug” or “I need a hug.”
I also don’t play games where I pout until my children hug me or I guilt them into thinking that their hug or kiss is the only thing that will change the way I personally feel. My children are not manipulating others by choosing not to give affection, they are being manipulated when others think they do not have a choice.
Similarly, if I say “I love you” it is truly and simply just to express that? Nothing is expected in return.
Our first big blow-out with a family member didn’t come for years, really. We would kindly intervene when we noticed our children being pressured and say, “We actually don’t require him/her to hug if he/she doesn’t want to.” But this day… that wasn’t quite enough. This family member was deeply hurt. It really meant something about how much my children loved her. So, what did I do? First, I stood in my power as a parent. This is our family’s rule, this is how we roll. No compromises. Second, I extended compassion.
The hurt family member was triggered. Angry. Distraught. I knew that her overwhelming emotion was more connected to her own thoughts and feelings than the truth of my children’s love for her. Knowing that this family member had lost her mother in early adulthood, I knew that her own yearning to have more time and affection with her own mother made her wonder why my children wouldn’t savor every moment with her.
I realize this feels like an open-ended, potentially not a final feeling solution. And it is. This is a lifestyle and a work in progress. There will be people who do understand and those who don’t. There will be people who get angry and people who admire your courage. It is what it is. The absolute best part of this journey has been watching my now 4 and 6-year-olds grow into loving, affectionate, secure children.
I tear up just thinking of all of the unsolicited hugs, kisses, and I-love-you’s I receive daily from them. When I’m reading. When we’re eating dinner. When they run in from playing just to give a little love. How many of these moments do we give up when we condition our children to tame their own personal power and disregard their own consent?
I’m excited to watch my children continue to grow and understand the art of relationships, how to love, how to give space, and how to respect others just as they have been respected in their lives. What will it look like for them to learn to live in a state of abundant affection and giving freely instead of in a world where they’re enslaved to someone’s idea that they are the only available source of love to be taken from?
Take these ideas and let them marinate. Whether you’re a parent now or not, respecting these boundaries for the children of others, your adult friends and family, and yourself will take you into a totally new appreciation for the affection you give and receive in your life.