Urging kids to give friends and family a hug or a kiss seems mostly harmless, as the intent is usually to teach politeness and show love. But there are other (very cool, very fun) ways to do this that can give children more control over their body and what makes them feel comfortable.
As a perpetual Auntie to many children (both blood related and otherwise), I’ve often had well meaning parents tell their child to give me a hug or a kiss, usually as a greeting. Before the child can begrudgingly shuffle over to me, though, I’ll say we can greet one another in other ways too. This is usually met with confusion, which I imagine is due to the fact that kids are rarely given free reign to do whatever they want. But I often wonder if it’s also because we only call attention to hugs and kisses as ways of showing affection, so when presented with an alternative, kids don’t know what to do.
With that in mind, below are a few other ways to give the kiddos in your life some love. All of these can be great for saying hello or goodbye, and shows respect for a child’s right to control what happens to his/her/their body.
- Fist bump. Everybody likes a good fist bump. This is an especially useful one for kids who are more physical, but may not be physically affectionate. You can expand this to include a reaction to the fist bump, making elaborate movements and facial expressions. Also, FIST BUMPS ARE AWESOME. Offer this up to kids and you will be the coolest adult they know.
- Dance it out. The artist in me can’t resist an opportunity to get creative, and dancing it out is a fun way to do so while connecting with children. You can get super silly with this, creating interpretative dances or trying to copy their sweet dance moves. Plus, doing a little booty shake as a greeting is sure way to get some laughs and gives the kid some physical space, honoring boundaries.
- A good ol’ wave. This is especially good for kids experiencing anxiety around people or when in big groups. Kids who struggle with social interaction may benefit from physically engaging in a way that is familiar and safe, allowing them to focus on only one challenging social skill at a time. By offering to just wave as a greeting, these kids learn that it is okay to not want physical contact and that they can find other ways to interact with those around them.
- Make up your own language. Ask the child how aliens/monsters/fairies (you get the point) might greet each other. Build on whatever they say and expand it. This allows children to turn hello and goodbye into a game, and gives them agency over what they do with their body. In their human form, they may not feel comfortable with physical affection, but in alien, they’re great with something like tapping elbow or bumping foreheads.
- Create a secret handshake. If you have a kid who you see regularly, creating a secret handshake gives him/her/them agency to determine the amount of physical contact while also fostering a bond between you and the child. You can use this each time you see each other, building that relationship further. Plus, you get to have a secret handshake, which automatically makes you cool.
Giving kids options for ways to say hello and goodbye offers you a chance to teach them a subtle social lesson: They never have to do anything that makes them feel unsafe, even if it hurts another person’s feelings. They have agency and ownership over their body. And the adults in their lives will respect that.