Respecting Children’s Boundaries

Recently, I went to my parents’ house to visit my extended family. It was a completely solo trip (No husband! No kids!), and I got to relax and visit with my little nephews.  I really enjoyed my time playing with them, and they seemed to enjoy hanging out with just me.Respecting Children's Boundaries - Natural Parents Network

When it was time to leave, I sought out my oldest nephew to say good-bye.  “Can I have a kiss and a hug?” I asked. He turned his back on me, clearly telling me he was not as happy as I was.

“Can I have a high five?” Again, the answer was clearly no – although this could be more due to the sand in his hands than ignoring me.

I wasn’t upset by his refusal. He was three, and three-year-olds are known for their honest feelings. Instead of forcing him to kiss me, I was simply going to say good-bye when an elderly relative came outside. “Come on, give your aunt a kiss!” he said.

“It’s okay, he doesn’t have to kiss me.” I turned back to Zee and said, “Okay, buddy, I love you. See you soon.”

“You should have had him give you a kiss,” my relative said as he walked me to the car.

“I’m not going to force him. I know he loves me, and he’s sad that I am leaving. He can kiss me later, if he wants.”

It’s true – I’m not going to force my nephew to show me signs of affection. I think everyone has heard stories of overbearing aunties who force kisses, pinch cheeks, and smell like liver. I don’t want to be that type of auntie to my nephews. I need to be a “safe person,” someone they can trust enough to say “no” to, and still know that I will love and protect them. Short of safety issues (like holding hands to cross the street), I don’t want to force children to do something physical that they don’t want to do. If they feel like they can’t refuse physical affection to adults they know and trust, will they feel like they can refuse requests for physical affection from less-trustworthy adults?

Some kids, however, aren’t physically affectionate. They don’t like to be hugged or give and receive kisses. Of course, everyone wants to let children know how loved they are, even without kisses and hugs. I know several families who have a special, silly “catch-phrase” to say good-bye, like “later, gator!” and “out the door, dinosaur!” One friend has a “secret handshake” with her niece. It’s pretty complicated to watch but looks really fun!

I’ve also taught my children (as my nephews have been taught) to be polite if they don’t feel like hugging or kissing. A simple, “No, thank you,” to an offered hug is fine. I encourage them to ask for a hand shake instead, because a nice, firm handshake is a good life skill to have! If they are rude, I deal with the rudeness – not the lack of hugs or kisses.

In the future, I hope that my children and their cousins will have healthy personal boundaries because they were free to say, “no, thank you,” to physical affection they don’t want . . . and, of course, a love for their aunt (or mom!)!

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About The Author: Laura

Walden Mommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door My NPN Posts

Laura is the mother to a herd of four small children, wife to her Engineer Husband, and owner of a pesky dog. She blogs about her life in the Midwest at Walden Mommy: Life Behind the Red Front Door.

28 Responses to Respecting Children’s Boundaries

  1. ChristineP2

    Great article. From a safety standpoint, telling a child they need to be physically affectionate with another person, adult or peer, on demand regardless of their own feelings is detrimental. It makes it harder for them to be able to establish appropriate boundaries of their own volition. This causes a potential issue both with inappropriate interactions with adults and later in dating life when someone wants more than they want to give.

    I love that you brought this up as a conversation topic.

  2. Justin

    Thank you for this article. I cringe when a parent tries to push their children’s hugs and kisses on me, it’s not fair to either party. I’m much more into the authentic sentiments.

  3. Lorian Rivers

    I really appreciate your article…it is so true. My son is in a relationship with a fantastic lady, and she has a 3 yr old daughter. Her daughter REALLY like my husband, but is not so sure about me. Funny thing though, whenever we are together and I leave the area, she immediately wants to know where I am! I know that she will come around to hugs at her own time (and if not, so be it!)…and she will respect me for allowing her the option.

  4. Samantha

    It is interesting. Because, in a way, I would have looked like one of those “forcing their kids” parents. But, I would respond that my situation was child led. With my oldest, he was exactly as described in this article, generally only liked touching people he was close to, and really eye contact or talking with anyone else was a challenge. I never discussed kissing except to back him up that he didn’t need to kiss or hug anyone he didn’t want to… but then, with my twins, they were boisterous and mercurial. As toddlers, one, especially would often be so upset that someone would be leaving that he would refuse hugs or kisses, only to, once they had left, melt down that he didn’t get a chance to hug or kiss goodbye…. and once they were gone, they were gone…

    • Sam  

      My 3 year old is the same way. We lived a day’s drive away from our family. I try to explain that we won’t see them again for a long time. She gets so upset when we leave their house now. Which, should be evident in itself how much she loves them! It breaks my heart. My family doesn’t force her into hugs or kisses, thankfully. They just tell her how much they love and will miss her and how much fun they had seeing her.

  5. Sarah

    Yes, yes, yes! I always defended my daughter’s right to say no to hugs etc when she was little. She is much more physically affectionate to other family members now (she’s 10), but of her own will, which is fine. My niece is 3 and not always keen on hugs so I ask her if she will let me hug her and if she says no, that’s fine! I just say “okay” and tell her I love her!

  6. Renee

    Your relative probably saw it as a sign of respect for adults. If my daughter refused to give someone a kiss, thats fine, I respect her choice but she also needs to learn social boundaries and how to build relationships so I probably wouldn’t let the person leave until she atleast said bye.

    • Laura

      Yes, he is. Generally, most children will say good bye, wave or blow a kiss. It’s rare that they completely ignore a person.

      • Lindsay

        What do you if they refuse to say goodbye? My 5 year old sometimes flat out refuses to say goodbye. I think it is either because he is sad or tired. I tell him he doesn’t have to hug or kiss but it is polite to at least speak back.

  7. Momma Jorje  

    I loved my Grandpa, but his hearing aid would squeal in my ear when we hugged. We decided on a special hand shake, too. 🙂 Now its a fond memory I have of him.

  8. zuza

    I think that asking three years old “can I have a kiss” is kind of embarrassing. I completely agree that the author of the article should give a hug and kiss a child and leave. Simple as that.

    • Laura

      I wouldn’t force physical affection on a child, as I stated in the article. Some people, children included, don’t like it. Asking allows a child the freedom to say yes or no to the affection. As I stated, offering alternatives allows for bonding and comfortable hello/good byes while still respecting the wishes of the child.

      Besides, what person wouldn’t melt into a puddle of goo if a child chose to blow a kiss instead of giving you one? Or an adorable handshake?

  9. Bethany

    I have a delicate question… I don’t believe in forcing my son to kiss or hug when he doesn’t want to. There are family members, however, who respond with “I’m going to kiss you anyway!” How do I politely tell them to respect his boundaries? (He is my first child, so I’m new at this!)

  10. maxine

    find a book on the terrible twos. Study it u will have all your answers.
    This age do not liked to be kissed and hugged other than by parents. They have to know you

  11. Wonderful Wagon  

    Love this and absolutely agree. I wouldn’t be a “kisser” myself so would hate if I was forced to do that. Can’t understand why someone would “offer” their child to you to kiss. Especially when the child clearly doesn’t want to/didn’t lean forward themselves first. I’m all over my own kids but not so fond of kissing other peoples’ children. It doesn’t sit right with me. I much prefer it when someone asks for a high five or something similar. That’s not invading anyone’s personal space.

  12. Sam  

    Totally agree with this! My 3.5 year old is very particular with people. When she loves she loves big but when she wants her space she NEEDS her space. It doesn’t feel right to me as her mother to push her into situations where she is unnecessarily made uncomfortable. I remember being shy as a kid. I dreaded seeing those distant relatives when they’d insist on hugs and asking awkward questions. I think I made myself clear on how we deal with this sort of situation when she got overwhelmed by the attention at her 3rd birthday and we left the room for a good 15-20 minutes to sit in quiet. Boundaries are an undervalued, frequently trampled thing in our family structures in American culture.

  13. Rita

    My three year old has never liked being touched. Even as a baby, she put up with being held as a means to an end.( For example she would let you carry her from one place to another or let me hold her so she could nurse, but she screamed if anyone tried to hug or cuddle her). It was really easy for me to tell others to leave her be since ignoring her boundary meant she became hysterical and I could not do anything with her other than let her scream her self to sleep. No baby should have to do that.
    She is now somewhat affectionate on her terms. If she comes to me, I hug her. But I have never forced affection on her and don’t regret it. Kids are not known for their smooth social skills, so I know when she hugs me, it is because she really wants to hug me.
    She is also very fond of the people who did not force this on her. The aunts, uncles and grandparents that her come to them are the ones she wants to see without me. The others she will see, but wants me in the same room the entire time.

  14. Ursula

    I completely agree with you. I myself hate it when people expect hugs or kisses from me, so I never expect it from a child.
    My grandchildren are free to hug or kiss me, or to just say good bye, or whichever way is comfortable to them.
    I also never expect a child to come to me to sit on my lap, or give affection if they don’t want to. They’ll come soon enough when they’re ready.

  15. Jenny

    DS1 often refuses to acknowledge his grandparents (who he adores) when they or we leave – I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s sad and often tired too. I usually pick him up or crouch down to make sure he’s understood we won’t get to say goodbye later. If he still doesn’t want to say good bye alone I’ll often suggest a group hug, because as others have said he really DOES want to say goodbye, it’s just too hard at that moment. So he’ll sit on my hip and we’ll hug Granny and Grandad together. Sometimes he’ll actively participate and sometimes he’ll just huddle into my shoulder, but it’s always enough to stop him being upset later by not saying goodbye at all. Of course if he still refused a group hug I’d respect that but it rarely happens.

  16. Kisa Johnson  

    This is something I should make sure to pay attention to. I don’t want any of my kids to feel forced to be affectionate to anyone.

  17. Anonymous

    Oh my goodness! Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m not the auntie that seeks out little nieces and nephews to force love on them. It’s the other way around here – it’s their mother that forces it! It’s so uncomfortable! I hate standing there waiting for her to force her children to hug and kiss me when they clearly don’t want to. I’ve tried to tell her it’s ok and I don’t expect it or “need” it by any means, but that doesn’t seem to matter either. The whole thing is just weird!

  18. Camille Ney

    I grew up in Pennsylvania dutch family and the PA Dutch are kinda notorious for NOT being touchy feely huggy. Now, somehow my kids are naturally that way lol. Anyway, my dad’s thing was the hair ruffle. It was ‘hello, goodbye, and good job”

  19. Amy  

    Laura, this is so helpful. Thank you for sharing healthy boundaries with your children, and for sharing your experience with others so we can learn to do the same.

  20. Melissa

    This article is great! Recently my almost 4 year old nephew told me he doesn’t like me and wouldn’t give me a hug(keep in mind 10 minutes prior he was laying with me cuddling on the couch) and his mom said “give auntie a hug” and I said, no it’s ok, if he doesn’t want to . I realize that even though it feels bad when he says he doesn’t like me or doesn’t want to hug me when he’s normally very affectionate (he was also very tired) it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me, and I also want to be a safe person for him, someone who will take care of and protect him no matter what