Care and Feeding

Hugs and Kisses

We’ve taught our children that they’re in charge of their bodies. But what should we do if they rebuff our physical affection?

Parents kissing their child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LSOphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are having a disagreement about hugs and kisses at bedtime. We have a 4-year-old boy and a 2½-year-old girl, and they share a bedroom. We’re always teaching them that they are in charge of their own bodies and who touches their bodies, and about asking before touching someone else’s body.

After brushing teeth and reading a story, my husband and I each tuck one of the kids into bed. My script is “I love you and I’m proud of you every day,” along with a quick plan for what will happen tomorrow, then a hug and kiss. Then we switch kids and do it again before leaving and closing the door.

Now here’s where my spouse and I disagree: What happens if we ask for a hug or kiss and they say no? If we say, “It makes me sad that you won’t give me a hug or kiss,” is that forcing them (through guilt) to show us physical affection?

Now I readily admit that I have done this with my son in the past, and I now regret it. But hearing my husband say that to my daughter riled me up. A girl shouldn’t be guilted into or forced into letting anyone touch her, including parents for a bedtime kiss. Parenting in the #MeToo age has given me a different perspective.

However, my husband thinks it’s just as valid for him to state his own feelings, just as we ask them to do when they have a conflict (e.g., “It makes me mad when you take my ball”). There have also been nights when we are summoned back into the room for the hug and kiss they had earlier refused.

Am I being overly sensitive, or is my husband teaching her that someone else’s desire for her affection is more important than what she wants in the moment?

—Overthinking Body Autonomy Mom

Dear OBAM,

I’m not sure that I personally think a parent needs to ask their toddler for consent before every single hug or kiss, but I like where your head’s at. Anyway, you’ve established this expectation, so you’re kind of stuck with it now. Obviously don’t try to guilt-trip your kid into letting you kiss them by saying it makes you sad—that’s weird and kind of gross. Your husband’s right that he gets to state his feelings, but not to his toddler. If you want to teach your kids that “no means no,” then you kind of have to let no mean no, don’t you?

Maybe, however, you can take some inspiration from a trend happening in elementary schools where teachers let kids choose which greeting they want: a hug, a wave, or a high-five. This lets the kid be in charge and gives them options. So maybe you say to your kid something like “Good night! Do you want a wave, a hug, or a handshake?” (fill in with the menu items of your choice). In addition to making the consent issues clear, this also has the added benefit of putting the kids in charge of something at their bedtime, which, as you know, can otherwise be a contentious power struggle. Good job trying to raise good kids.