This holiday season, my kids will be seeing relatives they see just once a year, if that.
I expect our outgoing 18-month-old will have a brief warm-up period, then bust out her bubbly personality like she’s at home.
But our 6-year-old is terribly shy. She’ll need at least a couple days before she’s ready to open up.
Either way, in that moment when the long road trip is over and we pile out of the car, we’ll see family we haven’t seen in a long while.
Ty and I will greet them with hugs and smiles, but both kids will probably hang back.
I will not say, “Go give Uncle Jim a hug!”
I will not say, “Grandma missed you, why don’t you give her a kiss?”
I will not coerce my kids to show physical affection of any kind.
Bonus: Download a free printable coloring page to teach your kids a magic phrase for this tough situation.
What I’m about to say may be a little controversial.
Actually, I know it will be because I’ve had a few lively conversations about it with friends and family.
I’m not sharing my perspective because I think you should do what I do.
I know I’m most likely the oddball.
No, I decided to share today simply in order to explain where I’m coming from.
This is one of those parenting decisions you have to make for yourself.
Some parents teach their kids to believe in Santa. Some don’t.
Some parents send their kids to public school. Some homeschool.
And some parents acknowledge the existence of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
To each their own.
My hope is that my story helps you consider a different perspective. Not to change your mind, but so that if you have a friend or family member who feels the same way I do, you can approach them from a place of understanding.
Twice, my 6-year-old Abby has been in a situation where her instincts told her she didn’t feel safe with how someone was touching her body.
In both situations, she felt confident enough to say, “No, don’t touch me like that.” And she felt comfortable enough to tell me about what happened. Together, we came up with a plan for how to handle what happened and to prevent it in the future.
How is it possible that my shy little people-pleaser felt confident enough to say no?
Because my husband and I reinforce with her as much as humanly possible that she is the ONLY person in the world who gets to decide who touches her body.
A major part of reinforcing this message is how we approach physical affection with friends and family.
What We Do That Might Sound Odd
We tell Abby that it’s her job to decide what she’s comfortable with. We don’t force or coerce or guilt her into being physically affectionate with anyone, including us.
When we visit the grandparents, we don’t say: “Now go give Grandma a hug and a kiss.”
Instead, we lean down and say quietly so others can’t overhear: “Do you want to give Grandma a hug or a kiss?”
If she doesn’t feel comfortable with that, that’s her choice. Later, we can talk about it and explore why she didn’t. Maybe she needed some extra time to warm up to them after not seeing them for a while.
But no matter the reason: Her body, her choice.
If we felt like our kids were refusing physical touch just to be contrary or because they were having a crabby day, our approach is still the same. It’s not for us to decide who they feel comfortable touching.
And if Abby refuses a hug just as a power struggle?
Sometimes kids are in a bad mood and don’t feel like hugging Grandma. Shoot, sometimes I’m in a bad mood and don’t feel like hugging anyone.
No one’s forcing me to give them a hug, but we tend not to give a second thought to forcing a child into physical touch they don’t want.
If this approach results in hurt feelings on the part of the non-hugged family member, so be it. They’re adults, and we can talk to them later about what happened.
I never want to send the message that I know better than Abby does when it comes to who gets to touch her body. In a country where nearly 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted, this is an issue we take more seriously than just about anything else.
Here’s an Even Better Idea for You
If any of this is resonating with you, I wanted to share another approach we learned from a teacher at Abby’s school.
When saying goodbye to a student in her class, she says, “Hug, handshake, or high-five?”
This puts the child in the driver’s seat of deciding the level of touch they feel comfortable with.
Plus, it’s catchy and easy to remember.
Teachers have told me that “hug, handshake, or high-five” comes from a classroom management strategy called Conscious Discipline created by Dr. Becky Bailey. If you like the idea of this greeting, you will probably enjoy Dr. Bailey’s book for parents called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation.
How to Use This Magic Phrase With Your Child
Before you end up in this tricky situation, teach your child this phrase:
Hug, handshake, or high-five?
Practice it at home ahead of time. You might try setting up a doll on the couch and pretend she’s grandma. Then walk up to grandma with your child, turn to your little one, and say to your child, “Hug, handshake, or high-five?”
In the car before you get out to walk up to a house full of extended family members or your adult friends, talk through the scenario one last time.
Then when you’re inside the house and your child hesitates in the moment of greeting, say it out loud to your child to remind her she’s in the driver’s seat: “Hug, handshake, or high-five?” This has the added benefit of getting the adult up to speed on the fact that your child gets to decide the level of contact she feels comfortable with.
Or…Make Up Your Own Phrase
If your child prefers fist bumps, waving, or blowing kisses, those are all great alternatives too. Bonus points to whomever leaves the most clever catch phrases in the comments of this post!
Print This Sign to Teach Your Kids
This post includes a free printable “hug, handshake, or high-five” sign for you and your child. (See below for how to download it.)
Your kids can color in the words on this sign, and then you can hang it in your house as a reminder.
For the science of why coloring words on a sign helps your child internalize a lesson, check out Print This No Whining Sign to Stop Your Kids From Whining. But remember to keep it light and fun. If you introduce fear and stress into the situation for your child, learning stops.
To keep it fun, try printing two copies, then sit by your child and color them together.
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the color-in sign. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter! Just click here to download and subscribe.
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but sturdy card stock would be ideal.
- Set your kids up to color the sign. Regular old crayons work fine, or you can pair the activity with a fun new art supply like watercolor pencils or 80’s Glam Sharpies.
Download my FREE cheat sheet as a bonus for joining my newsletter: 16 Miracle Phrases to Help You Reconnect With Your Child
What are your thoughts on handling situations like this? Please share your thoughts in a comment below.