Note: The article below was written by Dr. Amy Tiemann. Amy is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader, Kidpower North Carolina Center Director, and co-creator of DoingRightByOurKids.com. Kidpower Connect is part of our One Million Safer Kids initiative to protect young people from bullying, violence, and abuse through greater awareness, action, and skills.
As parents well know, the holiday season is both incredibly exciting and potentially overwhelming for kids, sometimes all rolled together into one. At gatherings with families and friends, expectations about affection, attention, and teasing can create unnecessary stress and discomfort. By accepting our children’s different personalities and thinking through our boundaries ahead of time, we can teach our kids important life skills and make holiday parties and reunions more fun.
Most of us can remember being pressured to just “suffer through it” from our own childhoods. Who doesn’t recall being forced to kiss “Great Aunt Edna” as a kid, or getting scratched by Uncle Bob’s beard as he leaned in for a squeeze? Or, being told to just ignore the teasing and roughhousing of our cousins?
As a mother, I can relate to the embarrassment that a parent might feel when a child doesn’t want to give a big hug to Grandma when she walks in the door—especially if Grandma has been eagerly anticipating the visit for weeks and months. But through my work teaching personal safety as a Kidpower instructor, I have learned that supporting our children when they set boundaries is a very important practice.
Backing up a child who doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged does not mean that Grandma, or Great Aunt Edna, or Uncle Bob or Cousin Sara are doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch and play for affection or fun is your child’s choice in all situations. The holidays are a perfect time to work on “boundary setting” with our kids, so they feel confident and empowered as they move through different ages and stages of life.
When possible, try to bring relatives into this conversation ahead of time, letting them know that you are practicing with the kids to help them learn to set boundaries—and who better to practice with than people who know and care about the kids. That way, when a child sets a boundary with Grandma, she can feel that she’s part of a positive practice rather than left out. Some parents report that this is a difficult conversation to have, but I maintain that is an important one, and an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and exploration. Many parents feel that their culture has expectations the children show adults respect through affection.
At Kidpower, we have found that this is truly a cross-cultural phenemonea across a wide variety of backgrounds, and an issue that is worth addressing: how can we come up with ways for children to show respect to ther elders in ways that feel nurturing and respectful to the child as well? One point I like to emphasize about child safety is to ask “How can we expect our children to set clear boundaries about touch when they are on their own, if we do not support them in doing so when we are together with our families, standing right there in a position to advocate for our kids and back them up?”In practice, this may be as simple (yet powerful) as saying, “Do you want to give Grandma a hug, a high-five, a kiss, or a wave? ….Not right now? Okay… Maybe you’ll want to blow a kiss or do a high-five later.”
Some kids are social butterflies and will thrive on the opportunities to be the center of attention. Be prepared to help them to notice the boundaries of others and to remember to follow your safety rules about Checking First before changing the plan, even in a family gathering. Other children are more reserved and are best off being allowed to warm up at their own pace. They might need your involved advocacy to redirect unwanted attention away from them and your help in setting boundaries when well-meaning adults try to pressure them.
Even if a relative is offended when a child does not want to kiss or hug them, this is an important time to keep in mind the bottom line—kids need to learn from an early age that touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret. This core safety rule should be respected in all situations.
Touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.
It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. Keep in mind Kidpower’s founding principle: A child’s safety and healthy self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. Or, more simply stated: Put Safety First.
Here are additional Kidpower resources about how to use boundaries to make our holiday gatherings truly joyful: