“No” is a word you are probably very used to telling your child. From an early age, you are tasked with making sure they don’t get into anything dangerous, and saying no is the most effective way to stop your child. They hear the sharp word, understanding the tone immediately, and they know to stop even as infants.
It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of children have “no” as their first word (or one of the first). It’s easy to say, pronounce, and understand. However, there is a problem with children saying no: adults don’t always listen.
For a child, saying “no” to anything is an exercise of power, control, and autonomy. There are times when a parent or guardian needs to disregard that no; for example, refusing to eat their vegetables or go to the doctor is not a good use of their “no.” A child may refuse to do something that is healthy or good for them and it is up to the parent to either convince their child otherwise or ignore their objection.
When "No" Is Correct
However, we need to make sure we do not overcorrect when children say no. When your child says no, you should pause and try to understand them. This becomes essential when factoring in bodily autonomy.
Bodily autonomy, in essence, is the concept that you are the only one who has authority over your body. What happens with your body, what you do with it, and whether and how others are allowed to touch you is all within your realm of control. For children, teaching them this concept is crucial. Teaching your child about their own autonomy allows them to learn to respect themselves and others while also protecting them from people who seek to do them harm.
If your child is uncomfortable with some kind of affection or with certain people, do not force them to engage with those people or in those ways. For example, if they do not want to give family members hugs, you and your family need to respect that. If you force them to hug, kiss, or sit with people when they are not comfortable, this teaches your child that their body is not theirs and they have no control over who touches them and how.
Why You Should Respect the "No"
You should always respect your child’s boundaries, especially when it comes to giving or receiving physical affection. When your child learns that “no” is acceptable to say to others, it empowers them about their body and physical space.
You should instill in your child a faith in themselves and in their “gut instincts” so they do not fall into the trap that any adult can touch them in any way at any time whether or not they want the contact. This is a precursor to your child not knowing or understanding when they are at risk for abuse or assault, not just from adults but from other children. They will also learn to respect others’ boundaries, understanding empathetically that not everyone wants to be touched the same way or at the same time.
Your child also needs to know that you are their biggest and best advocate. Do not force their affection with others or with yourself. If your child is in a certain mood and doesn’t want to hug you, that’s ok and you should tell them so. A helpful thing to do is to offer your child a choice of how they would like to show affection. A common example is the choice of “hug, handshake, or high-five.” This is also a good practice to have with other family members or friends your child may not be as familiar or comfortable with.
Ultimately, you and your child will have a better time giving and receiving affection of all types, and your child giving affection will be more meaningful when they do choose to give it.