My son and daughter-in-law have a 2 year old daughter and they seem very serious about teaching her “consent” and “body boundaries”. Even though the child knows me, the parents insist that I get down on the floor and ask her if she would like me to hug her. This is very confusing I think to her as a young child and certainly is offensive and awkward for me as a grandparent. Does it seem appropriate to be teaching this method to a two year old?
-Confused in Ka’anapali
Dear Confused in Ka’anapali,
You are not the first grandparent I have heard this from, so try not to take it personally. Trends in parenting are constantly evolving and today’s parents are proactive about teaching body safety and the principle of consent to their young children. Challenging or opposing the parents is not a good idea. The trick is to find ways to incorporate these practices in ways that don’t feel awkward or scripted.
It has become more common for adults to offer young children the choice of whether or not to give and receive hugs. This idea can be uncomfortable at first if you’re not used to it; some cultures have the expectation that kids greet/hug family members as a sign of respect and some older adults may not be accustomed to hearing from children or centering their voices. And while some children love hugs and snuggles, some (including those with sensory processing difficulties) may not be as comfortable with physical affection.
How can you do this without making it weird? It can be as simple as replacing “Give me a hug” with “Can I have a hug?” If the child wants a hug, great, if not, that’s OK too. Seeking consent and offering choices teaches children that they have the ability to say no and helps them learn sensitivity and respect for others.
Another common situation in which this comes up is when an adult is tickling or wrestling with a child; remember that it’s important to stop when the child asks you to, even if they continue smiling and giggling. In this way, you are modeling how to listen and take “No” for an answer and demonstrating that their words have power.
What is the right age to begin teaching these skills? Some parents begin in infancy, narrating diaper changes and calling parts of the body by their anatomical names. Experts recommend starting these conversations by 3 years old. With preschoolers, you can begin to introduce the concepts of privacy and body safety in everyday situations like taking a bath or changing clothes.
Keeping up with current trends regarding the language we use and the ways in which we interact with others can be confusing, but in the end, everyone wants the same thing which is for our children to be healthy, strong, and safe.
Cecilia Ortiz, LCSW is a clinical social worker and a mom. She has nearly 20 years of experience including working with kids, teens, and adults in the areas of education, abuse, trauma, and prevention.