'I Won't Make My Kids Hug or Kiss Anyone'

I don't think I remember boundaries ever being talked about when I was a child. It was certainly never suggested that you had any say on whether others could hug or kiss you, and it was never particularly encouraged to say what you needed. "Stranger danger" was more the message at elementary school; it was never about personal boundaries or your body or anything like that.

My son James is 9 now, but as a baby he was always very clingy to me and wasn't that keen on going to other people. But other people wanted to hug and hold 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 needed to make him do that so he got used to it. I remember thinking: no, I don't need to do that.

As James got closer to 12 months old, he was expressing more and more that he didn't want to be hugged or picked up by other people and I started wondering why I was making him. He was obviously uncomfortable with it. Over the next couple of years he started to express himself more. He might not have been able to put a sentence together but he could say "no" and tell us what he didn't want. Yet other people mainly ignored it because they thought they knew best or that he was "just a kid."

By that point, I think the conversation around child consent or what a child needs was more prevalent. So when people were pushing him to do things, I would say that he didn't want to and or didn't feel comfortable with that.

Emma Amoscato Says Boundaries Are Important
Emma Amoscato with her two children. Emma Amoscato

My daughter Amalia was a different child. She is three years younger than my son, and was less clingy and more happy to go out in the world, so it didn't come about quite as early for her. But she has always been adamantly against people kissing her. Even us. She always says, "Oh no, no kisses!" As a parent, I find that quite difficult because she's my little girl and of course, I want to kiss her. But you have to follow your own rules.

My husband and I talked about it and agreed that when our kids have said that they don't want to have physical contact with someone we are going to verbalize that they have said no, and express that they don't have to do it. It's about consent. Now they are older we say to them: "It's my body, my rules." They get to choose what happens and what doesn't.

It's also about expressing your needs and boundaries and not being afraid to say to an adult or somebody older or in authority: "No, I'm not OK with that" and knowing that your parents will back you up.

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's fine with it. It's generally a case of stepping in quite quickly and calmly and saying she doesn't like being kissed. I'll move her away and ask her if she wants to give that person a hug instead or a wave goodbye. I try to make it firm and quick without making a big issue of it.

Generally with people we don't see as frequently or less close family members, they will just have an expression that says, "that's a bit weird" or look slightly disgruntled. Most people don't say anything or question it directly. With others, it can get frustrating when you're having to repeat yourself again and again.

I think it's really important to teach children, from a young age, to understand what they need, their own reactions and feelings and how to communicate that. I see a lot of adults who aren't great at self care and putting themselves first, and the kind of emotional and mental health impacts that has.

Even with adults, that word "boundaries" can feel like you're being difficult. Actually, it's protecting your own time and energy, and yourself. The more we can encourage our children to do that from a young age, it just becomes normal. It's 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'll back them up.

Emma Amoscato Encourages Boundaries For Children
Emma Amoscato says it is important to let her children to express whether they want to be hugged or kissed by others. She and her husband then support the children's choice. Emma Amoscato

My children both have food allergies, so they need to be able to advocate for themselves and say to an adult if something is not safe for them. They are quite comfortable in 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 the best thing for the child from their perspective or are you just trying to keep people happy or keep up appearances, or do things like 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 boundaries and needs has a tangible effect. I think it makes them more open and honest in communicating with us and talking about their feelings generally. It stops them from burying what they are feeling or need - whether it's 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 to and respect adults' opinions but not listen to and respect children's opinions. Especially when it's about their own body, their autonomy or their feelings. I wouldn't say you always have to ask to hug and kiss, but if a child is physically backing away, showing they are not comfortable or saying, "No, I don't want to" then you should be listening.

Everybody parents in different ways and has different experiences. I know there are a lot of conversations about asking for consent. I think sometimes that is an extra step for people to understand or go with. My message would be: listen to and respect what people are saying. Adults and children.

Emma Amoscato is a mum-of-two living in Bedfordshire, England and is the founder of wearesmileapp.com, a mental health and wellbeing platform for families managing chronic physical health conditions. You can follow her on Instagram @wearesmileapp.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.