It's a familiar scene—one that I've been in a thousand times, as a child and now as a parent.
We're finishing a lovely dinner and evening with family or friends. Our cheeks are all a bit flushed from wine and laughter, our bellies are full, our hearts are happy. And then someone leans over to one of my children and says, “Give me a big hug goodbye before I go!"
He takes a few unsteady steps backwards and says, shyly but surely, “I don't want to."
And then all eyes are on me. The relative longing for an affectionate moment with this little person they love so much, looking to me to say, “Go ahead, honey. Give her a hug!" And my little person, with tentative eyes looking up at me for guidance and protection.
Without fail, I take sides—the same one each time. “It's okay baby, you don't have to give her a hug."
It gets a little awkward. And that's completely okay.
This simple act which could be viewed as a rude annoyance to the affection-seeking relative, is actually a major stand in my parenting—one that I am proud of and one that I encourage every parent to consider.
My responsibility is to my children, first and beyond everything else. It is my job to help them stand up for themselves, and to stand up for them when they can't.
They trust me more than anyone in the world. I am not going to defy that trust by insisting that they do something that makes them uncomfortable.
I actually feel immensely proud of them when they decline a hug. It takes a lot of guts to stand up for yourself—in general, and especially to slightly intoxicated Aunt Sally.
I want to show them through my actions that they are allowed and encouraged to speak their mind and protect themselves for things that make them nervous.
They are supposed to test limits with me. They practice talking back to me. They practice lying and breaking rules with me. And when they practice saying no with me, I need to do everything in my power to applaud and encourage them.
“I'm the boss of my body."
I must say this 243 times a day. Usually it's because my 3-year-old is insisting that he sit on my 2-year-old's head, or because my daughter is insisting that she demonstrate on my face that jelly really makes a really pretty eyeshadow.
"But mooooo-oooom, it's strawberry!"
"Who's the boss of my body, honey?"
"Ugh you are." Huff, sigh, storm off.
But the reason behind this statement's omnipresence in my house is so that it becomes a deep inner-knowing that no one tells them what they have to do with their body—ever.
We hear over and over again how important consistency is for children—it applies here too. It's way too confusing to teach them, 'You can't hug your friends at school if they don't want to be hugged, but you do have to hug Aunt Sally when she tells you to.'
Because no means no. Period.
It means no when I say, "No you can't touch the stove." It means no when your sister says, "No you can't keep tickling me." It means no when your first girlfriend says, "No, actually, I'm not ready yet." And it means no when you tell your relative that you don't want a hug.
This is the message. There is no room for grey area here.
It makes me nauseous to consider, but the truth is this:
Statistics are such that it it likely that one of my children will find themselves somehow in an uncomfortable situation involving their bodies. I won't be with them when it happens.
But I'm with them now, and I am going to make it count. And maybe, somewhere in the depths of their subconscious they'll hear my voice, find the strength to say, "I'm the boss of my body," and have the ability to walk away.