There’s more to kids than hugs – some kids just aren’t physically affectionate. That doesn’t make them rude or unfriendly, says Serena de Souza.
I’m a physically affectionate person. My husband is. So is my younger daughter. My older daughter is not.
My youngest is a beloved character to all the adults we know because she is so free with her physical affection. Because really, there’s nothing like being bowled over by a little girl with arms open wide who’s delighted to see you (unless you’re that crazy person in the States, and even she only did it for the insurance).
But even though my older daughter Rose doesn’t smother me in kisses or readily hold my hand, her kind of love satisfies me deeply. She and I share a sense of humour. She’s fascinated by geography and cooking, so we look at books together and talk about things that interest me too. And we laugh. She’s awesome if you get to know her.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where children are expected to give freely of their physical affection to adults, on demand, and my older daughter’s shying away from effusive welcomes, or cringing under uninvited touch has people seeing her as surly or rude.
I love that my youngest is a joy for so many people to encounter. But it troubles me that my oldest is often overlooked because she doesn’t surrender her physical affection easily. I am sad that as a child – a woman-child – who doesn’t like to be touched, she will be judged for not conforming, when really, what she does with her own body is her business.
There are other ways to be friendly
Last week, I was at a party. My husband joined us later with our kids. Annabel, one of the guests, was delighted to meet Rose, and started the introduction by playfully checking her shoulders for thorns.
Of course, Rose contorted awkwardly and tried to get away. Nothing doing, Annabel read her reluctance and instead started asking her questions about life and school, and then wandered into the garden with her to see if they could find an item of every colour of the rainbow.
I was deeply moved by Annabel’s willingness to engage with my daughter in a different way. Instead of branding Rose as “awkward” or “rude” when she shied away, Annabel tried another tack and then another, until she found a way to relate to her. Rose was starstruck. I hope that in her life she will meet more people like this – people who accept that she’s more than the hug withheld at first encounter.
I believe very strongly in children’s bodily autonomy. I don’t believe that anyone of any age should ever be taught or forced to accept a physical encounter that they are not comfortable with. I will stand up for Rose’s right to refuse to be touched every time it happens and help her to find the words to deflect approaches effectively but kindly – or forcefully if necessary – when she is able.
(But just so we’re clear, I am not one of those crackpots who believe it’s wrong to teach children to say please and thank you or to share.)
I know that Rose’s path through life is going to be a rocky one.
My friends know that they will encounter her incredible spirit if they discuss things like flags of different countries, show her interesting books or games, or ask her to tell them what she likes to cook – which are true reflections of getting to know and understand another human being. But many people she encounters will dismiss her without ever seeing her for who she is.
And so, to everyone who ever encounters a soul with physical defences, please don’t write them off. Try harder. Look for that deeper connection.
And if you do, and if you find one, it’s just possible that maybe, one day, that child will trust you enough to express her love to you with a soft hand slipped quietly into yours, or a little lithe body tucked into yours as you watch TV, and those will be the sweetest encounters you’ll ever know.