“Can you give Grandma a hug?”
“Uncle Matthew loves to squeeze your cheeks.”
“You aren’t going to let me kiss you? I’m so sad!”
This one is hard for me, I’ll be honest. I want my kids to be affectionate with people we love, so I often find myself (too strongly?) encouraging a kiss or hug.
There is a lot of conversation about “consent” now, and it made me think about how early I should give my children choices about how they show affection. It’s hard because occasionally my children just feel like saying no, and I want to honour that—but being physically affectionate with the people we love most is really important to me.
I’ve learned that giving children the power and tools to choose how they show affection can have a huge impact on how comfortable they feel drawing boundaries later on. Practising, narrating, and role-playing different scenarios—as well as giving your child specific language to express their choices—can really help empower them.
Here are some ways to support your child’s developing understanding of consent:
Model it yourself
Before you hug or kiss your child, try asking for their permission: “may I give you a kiss?” Chances are they’ll say yes, but if they say no, honour their request and try not to express your disappointment (for me, this takes a lot of practice). This lets them know they have the right to make choices about their body, and that you’ll respect those choices.
The critical thing about tickling is that when your child says “stop” or “no,” you need to stop—immediately. It can be confusing because you’re both having so much fun and laughing so hard that it’s natural to want to keep going. In our family, we made a rule that when anyone says “stop” or “no” during tickling, we stop, because it can easily go too far.
There are also some non-verbal signals children give to communicate that they’ve had enough: sometimes they will arch their back, stiffen their arms and legs, or try to leave your grasp. All of these should be construed as a “stop.”
Teach that consent goes both ways
One way to explain the concept of consent to a two-year-old is to say, “everyone gets to decide about their body.” Explain that when someone tells them “stop touching me,” they need to listen to that person—even if the touching was okay moments before.
Encourage open dialogue
Try to be open and truthful when your child shows curiosity about bodies; answer questions as honestly as you can. Teach them correct anatomical terms for all body parts, including the ones covered by a bathing suit. This gives them the right vocabulary while also letting them know that it’s healthy and natural to be curious.
Offer alternatives to hugs and kisses
I know, it’s hard—especially with family. Here are some other ways to show love when saying hello or goodbye: a fist bump, a bow, an elbow tap, blowing a kiss or a wave. Two-year-olds do better with limited choices, so you can say something like, “do you want to give a hug, a high five, or a wave?”
Give permission to speak firmly
Explain to your child that a firm, loud “NO!” or “STOP!” is okay—even encouraged—when their body is being touched in a way they don’t like. You may want to model this and role-play it, particularly because it’s an important exception to the way we normally teach children to interact.
Give them choices over other things
Having control is something that’s still new to a two-year-old, and often they’re extremely interested in being in charge of something, whether it’s their body or something else. Giving them little responsibilities like what pants to wear and other small choices throughout their day helps emphasize that they can make decisions.
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