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Touchy subject Part 3 -- Hands off!

May 9, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
On the flip side of mothers cementing physical and emotional bonds with our babies, what about the people outside our immediate families who insist on hugs and kisses from our little ones?

Big, burly men saying, "Come here and give me a hug!" or "Climb up here on my lap." Acquaintances — and even extended family members — who see the child only once or twice a year, saying, "Give me a kiss!" or greeting your child by tickling him or her.

What is UP with that?

Granted, in the case of the hugging, if it is a good friend of yours, and you're right there, it shouldn't be a big deal, as long as your child knows he or she has the right to refuse. A child should NEVER be forced to give hugs or kisses (not even to parents or grandparents, IMO), and no adult should take it personally if the little tot freaks out and runs to Mama. Sure, Aunt Martha or Uncle Joe's feelings might get a little stung, but if they are well-adjusted adults, they'll realize a 2-year-old they haven't seen since last Fourth of July is not making a personal judgment.

If Emma knows you and likes you, she's a little hugging machine — you don't have to ask, and in fact, she might surprise you with a sneak-attack hug or slam you with a running-start hug.

But if she's asked for a hug from someone about whom she's not too sure, she immediately looks to me searchingly, as if saying, "Is this OK?" I encourage her ... or not ... depending on my instincts.

But what if I or her daddy are not right there? What if, God forbid, she has wandered off at the mall or goes out of my sight for a moment at the playground? Would she know, instinctively, to run away from a stranger who approaches her? What about a nice-looking stranger who has a puppy or a cupcake?

What if we're at a family gathering and, again God forbid, an extended family member or their boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/stepson — you name it — finds Emma alone and wants a hug or starts tickling her? Would she know that that is not OK? And if she did, would she run and tell me?

As a parent, these scenarios are absolute nightmares to consider, and I pray I will be vigilant so that these situations do not arise. But I will not stick my head in the sand. The world is full of sick, mixed-up people, and short of tethering her to me, I know I won't always be right there for her.

The answer to all those questions above is that she might know what to do instinctively, but I'm not taking any chances. I have already introduced her to the Yello Dyno CD and DVD, "You Can't Fool Me!" It's full of fun, upbeat songs, guided by research, that teach children personal safety lessons. (There are other musical safety programs out there, such as Brite Music's "Safety Kids" and KinderVision's "Little Red" series, but I am only familiar with Yello Dyno).

Emma's favorite song from the CD is "My Body's Mine, Mine, Mine!" which addresses the subject of this blog. The message, wrapped up in a reggae beat, is that if someone tries to hug you and you don't like it, it's OK to say no. Another of her favorites is "Tricky People," which teaches tots what to do if a stranger approaches him or her: "Take three steps back and then run like the wind!" This advice is based on research that if you get out of the potential perp's reach and then turn and run, they seldom will run after you. Yello Dyno also teaches that if they ARE grabbed, they should yell, "Help! This is not my mom (or dad)!"

I'm also teaching Emma 911 and my cell phone number by singing them to her and having her repeat them. (Yes, I know, I'll have to answer to a 911 dispatcher one of these days on a false alarm -- I apologize in advance!). And I'm telling her that if she gets separated from Mommy at the mall or the park, she should find a person behind a cash register or another mommy with kids.

Is she too young for all this information? Not when it's put to music. Kids remember songs, especially if they are repetitive. Yello Dyno says research shows during a fight-or-flight situation, the part of the brain that remembers music/songs is alert, while the part that recalls information learned other ways shuts down. So a child is more likely to remember the lyrics "Take three steps back and run like the wind" than a picture she colored in a safety book.

But back to the "touchy" subject at hand. No matter how well-meaning you are, folks, check with a child's parent before asking for a hug or kiss. Ask the parent if it's OK if you hold the the child or sit the child on your lap. And don't tickle someone else's child, period.

It all comes down to respect ... and common sense (which isn't as common as it used to be).


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