My three year-old is very good at giving spontaneous hugs. He often hugs his teachers, his grandparents, and his friends, enveloping them in a tight, slightly-sticky squeeze.
But sometimes, when he isn’t sure of a new person, or if he is just feeling tired and overwhelmed, he will refuse to hug. Instead, he will stand rigid, chin tucked down to one side, eyes averted – a small but determined protest.
I used to insist that if he was invited to hug someone, he should do so because it hurt the person’s feelings to refuse.
But lately, I’m not so sure.
If he doesn’t want to hug or be hugged, why should he be forced to? His emotions and appreciations are evolving; he is becoming a better judge of situations, better able to monitor his stimulus-level, better able to determine if he likes and trusts someone.
In these instances, instead of forcing a reluctant compliance, I have been trying to give him a polite way to decline: “No, thank you” or “I prefer not, thanks”.
My change of heart was prompted in part from reading articles that assert giving children a sense of their personal rights is important not only for developing self-worth, but that it may help guard against physical and sexual abuse by instilling in children a sense of their personal rights.
They seem like such grown-up phrases coming from that little mouth, but he manages them admirably. Being able to refuse an adult invitation gives him a sense of autonomy over his actions, and what small child doesn’t enjoy a taste of big-kid independence?
With these new forms of language, he discovers new ways to interact with the world and, hopefully, an inkling that his words and actions matter because they have the power to effect others — even grown ups. This last one is quite the brain- tickler for a small boy who developmentally may not be fully cognizant of the notion that other people have thoughts and feelings too.
As with all things relating to small children, it’s a careful negotiation: how do explain that he can decline a hug, but that it’s not acceptable to refuse other requests?
And how do you keep a straight face when you ask your child to clean up his toys and hear, “I prefer not, Mummy”!?