We see it every year: the quintessential photo of a crying child with Santa. These pictures almost seem like a time-honored marking of the holiday season, but should they? Or should we be reading more into our kids’ response to sitting on the jolly old guy’s lap? And not just when it comes to posing with Santa, but with the hugs and kisses from friends and families that abound during the holidays? Should we force our children to grin and bear it even if they show obvious signs of unease?
“It’s important to read your child’s signals,” said Laurie McKechnie, a Nurse Practitioner at Lynn Women’s Health, a gynecology and obstetrics practice affiliated with Lahey Health. “If your child looks to hide, pushes away, or doesn’t make eye contact around certain people, follow those cues.”
The holidays are actually a good time to discuss physical boundaries with kids. And the conversation can never start soon enough, says McKechnie. “I don’t think you can start too early — even basics of no touching during bathing or toilet training starts those conversations. Body awareness is very important.”
Supporting children in their own establishment of boundary setting is incredibly important, even if it gets awkward with family and friends. If you’re worried about offending Uncle Ted or Grandma at the family holiday party if your child declines their request for a hug or kiss, try directing the attention away from the situation by changing the conversation or model behavior yourself by extending your hand for a handshake.
In the long run, teaching children early about setting physical boundaries sets the stage for how they view consent and physical respect throughout their life. It can help them understand their rights and to know when someone has crossed the line.
Bottom line, says McKechnie: “Affection should be freely given — not forced.”