Can Kids Love Too Much? – Teaching Children To Give Affection With Respect

I’m not one to question the value of demonstrative love and affection.  Giving hugs is such a reflex for me that I embarrass myself by hugging people I barely know. I’ll often come to my senses midway through the ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ hug — too late to catch myself. This creates some awkward moments, but (I hope) my kind intentions are understood.

But with children, especially infants and toddlers, I believe we must be careful.  If a child (who is not my own) reaches out to me, I will gladly receive his hug, but I would never hug a child without asking first. And unless I knew the child well, I wouldn’t ask.

Occasionally I receive a hug from a child I don’t know at all, or may have met once. This makes me feel honored, but I also wonder: does this child give away her love too easily? Does she have safe, healthy personal boundaries?

I also worry about the child whose abundance of affection (which has undoubtedly been encouraged by adults because it’s charming, endearing and certainly beats the alternative) makes it difficult for her to control an impulse to hug, kiss or touch too much. This may bother and upset her peers, even scare them, and cause her to be reprimanded by adults. Will she feel shamed? Will her affectionate nature be discouraged?

How do we encourage a child to be loving and affectionate, but also develop healthy personal boundaries, and respect those of others?

1. Talk before touching. Slow down. Touch gently.

A child learns respect when she is respected. This begins when we see from our baby’s point-of-view. Most of us can imagine preferring the opportunity to anticipate a touch and would rather be warned before being picked up, not hastily scooped up from behind.  And although it may feel strange to talk to a baby at first, it soon becomes second nature. Slowing down our speech, our movements, and especially our touch makes a baby feel more involved in the activities we share, more considered and respected.

Since our hands are our babies’ welcome to the world, make it a gentle, peaceful and welcoming place for him by touching softly and slowly.

Although it can be awkward sometimes, ask others who touch your baby to do these things, too.

2. Deal politely, but firmly with the adoring stranger. 

A recent commenter on my post, Big Bad Mama, expressed her discomfort with the “little white lies” she was telling strangers to keep them from touching her baby. If there is a time for white lies, protecting our baby may be it. I always found it worked best to say, “He cries easily when touched,” or something like that.  Nobody wants to be responsible for making a baby cry!  If you have a rapport with the person and are comfortable with the idea of her touching or holding your baby, ask your baby first, and see if his body language indicates openness to the idea. Be sure to talk him through the situation.

3. Ask first. Encourage your child to do the same.  

We will not always ask our own child if we can hug him, of course, though it is respectful to approach slowly and not grab him roughly or startle him. But with other children, whether they be friends’ babies or nieces and nephews, it is safest to ask before an initial touch of any kind. Treating our baby with respect, and then modeling respect for others in front of our own child is the best way to teach considerate behavior.

If your child becomes an openly affectionate “hugger” around other children, help him begin the habit of asking first. If you are nearby, talk to the child he approaches.  “Sam wants to hug you. Is that okay with you?” If the child seems unsure or indicates that it isn’t, tell Sam he can say “hi” without touching.

4. Protect your infant or toddler around large groups and older children.

Often, when a child either behaves aggressively by hitting or pushing, or is suddenly intent on hugging other children in my parent/toddler classes, the parents mention that the toddler was recently exposed to loving adults and older children that hugged, kissed or played roughly with him. Commonly, these are family gatherings, and the parent is uncomfortable intervening in what seems like a joyous time of bonding.  But regardless of the fun and the fact that the infant or toddler may have laughed and enjoyed himself, his boundaries have been broken, which can confuse him and may cause him to act out with other children.

The hugging and kissing I see in this situation appears to be aggressive behavior – albeit the more socially acceptable type — similar to the way an older sibling might seem to hug and kiss baby brother within an inch of his life. These are times when we must gently, but firmly intervene.

5. Give gentle acknowledgements rather than big hooplas for respectful, affectionate acts.

When we see our child give a spontaneous hug or kiss to a peer, it is almost impossible not to react with a joyful “Awwwwww!” But if we want to insure that our child continues to express affection genuinely and respectfully, rather than as a performance for us, it’s wise to try to temper our response, maybe say something like, “You gave your friend a hug. That was kind of you.” (We will still be quietly projecting how touched, amazed and proud we are.)

Our restraint is an investment that will guarantee more random, unsolicited, authentic acts of affection in the future. Many may even be directed at us.

26 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Roseann Murphy says:

    Oh Janet, this is such an excellent article dealing with respect. So often well meaning family, friends and even strangers think nothing of reaching out and hugging, tickling and even kissing a child without a thought of asking first.
    Wonderful advice and information on how to handle the more aggressive hugging that comes when a child’s own boundaries have been broken.
    Thanks too for the insight regarding other people holding our babies. Watching the babies reaction when asked if they want to be held is a key component to respect. I am so grateful for these articles. I come away with a sense of renewal. It seems that so much of the world has forgotten what it means to be polite and kind…and then I read this lovely article. Thank you

  2. I am in complete agreement with you, Janet. I have allowed many-a baby to turn away from me by choice. So much the better when I offer my open hands with eye contact and they lunge toward me by choice.

  3. Thanks for this Janet!

    This is good advice for how to handle older children who can sometimes tend to be overwhelming to an infant…..

    i have many friends with children between the ages of 4 and 8 who dont give the kids boundaries when it comes to my baby……often i end up feeling overwhelmed after a visit because i am having to keep a hawk eye on the kids without seeming like it as i dont want to offend anyone……..

    in the past i felt bad because i know that the children have positive energy and i dont want to be stifling…at the same time i also know that my child to these children is more like a “new toy” than anything else……

    this post has given me a good idea of how to approach these types of situations…..and maybe teach the adults something through talking with their children about appropriate interaction with my infant….

  4. I really like the ideas you presented here. I have almost always asked my son’s permission before hugging, picking up or tickling him, or at least given him warning that it’s going to happen. It’s not always verbal, though. I might make a gesture he understands and wait for a positive response.

    My son, who is just barely two, has begun to play with the neighborhood kids. One girl who is five or six, takes it upon herself to pick him up and put him on a bike or in a stroller to push him around without asking him first. I’ve told her a couple of times to ask him first, but I am definitely going to start insisting. I’m going to try to counter her influence, too, by clearly showing my son the proper way to interact physically with people. Thanks for the ideas.

    1. Hi Lisa!

      I appreciate your sensitivity. It’s common for older children (and our babies are usually enamored with them) to treat infants and toddlers like adorable toys. We don’t want to discourage these relationships, but I believe we have to give the older child boundaries… help her learn respect. Happily, this is often easier to do with children than it is with other adults! What I have noticed is that the older children actually end up having much more fun when they stop manipulating and directing, and allow the younger child to initiate play. They usually get a big kick out of the younger child’s antics!

      1. Hi Janet. I know this is an older article, but can you give some specific advice on intervening when older children or siblings “treat infants like toys”? I’m really struggling with this with my six year old and 13 month old.

  5. This article gives me a lot to think about. Our daughter just turned 2 years old. We have always communicated with her about her physical boundaries, since infancy (ex/”I am going to pick you up now” and wait for her response). We ask her if she would like to be tickled, don’t just dive in unannounced. We have always told her to talk first, then hug- soft touches, etc. She went through a ‘pushing’ phase between 17-22 months old. She would just walk up to a child and push them flat on their back. I responded by calmly saying, “I won’t let you push”, and then calmly addressing the other child “I’m sorry she pushed you” (and the parent, if necessary)- then I would remove her from the situation. We would talk about appropriate ways to play with others during ‘fun’ parts of our day, in private (not in front of other kids/parents). This approach seemed to work, because she completely stopped pushing. I believed it was just a phase, and you can’t ‘discipline’ a child out of a natural developmental stage. Very true. However, she is quite the hugger now. And I am sensing that maybe she has merely replaced pushing, with hugging! There are times her hugs seem aggressive (a strong squeeze)–she seems to give strong hugs when first meeting another child. This is modeled in our family- as my I am really huggy with my own adult friends, as well as my husband. She sees lots of hugging when people meet & greet. Anyways, I realize she can’t just walk up to other kids and hug them. She always hugs, then asks, “would you like to play with me?” Or, if she hears a baby crying, or even another toddler she will go over to them and hug them, then ask, “are you okay? My hug can help you.” Sometimes, other parents (strangers to me) think it is sweet and verbally praise her for hugging their child, even though their child might seem uncomfortable or taken by surprise. Other times, they give me the side-eye and grab their child away from mine- giving her nasty looks. I am afraid she is going to get ‘hurt’, for being this affectionate. Now I am wondering how to encourage her to stop hugging so much. Does this sound like normal 2 yr old behavior? Or is she having physical boundary issues? I’m going to re-read your article and reflect on each part. If you have anything to add, after reading my story- let me know. Thanks!

  6. To be more specific, she just turned 25 months. So she is a “young 2”.

    1. Kari, this is really interesting to me and I just want to let you know that I’m momentarily swamped, but will be responding in the next couple of days! 🙂

  7. Take your time to respond. I actually wanted to add one more thing about what prompted her to start pushing, originally. She had gone up to a 3 yr old who was crying and hugged her, out of the blue. I was not close enough to stop her, and the 3 year old pushed her very hard (and full of anger/rage) flat on her back. So, the pushing began that very day, and continued until it turned back into hugging. Her hugs tend to be stronger now, instead of soft like they were originally.

    1. Kari, thanks for your patience! I’ve been mulling over your situation and have a couple of thoughts. I appreciate your non-punitive response when your daughter did the pushing a while back. Verbally, you handled it perfectly, in my opinion, but I think your daughter may need a little more. It’s great for a toddler to hear about the behavior you expect, but then they usually need us to follow through by stopping them in the moment. I think your instinct about the hugging being a more socially acceptable kind of “pushing” is accurate. And without her being consciously aware of it, I believe she may be testing to see if you will stop her.

      It think she needs you to be close (whenever possible) when the hugs are about to happen, place your hand or body in between her and the other child, or maybe hold her back gently and say, “I won’t let you touch so-in-so. Are you wanting to hug her to say hello? Comfort her? Ask if she’s okay? Please ask him/her first.” If the other child doesn’t seem to agree to a hug, say to your daughter, “So-in-so doesn’t seem to want a hug. Can you find a way to play with her/help her feel better/ etc. without touching?”

      If you and whoever else cares for your daughter can be consistent about this, I think she’ll stop doing it very quickly and also be relieved.

      The hugs are far more socially acceptable with adults than they are between children, as your daughter found out the hard way. We want her to get along well with her peers. Also, we don’t want her to go up to every adult and hug him or her…or be open to the person hugging her without her permission.

      This is all really interesting to me, Kari, and I appreciate you trusting me enough to ask my opinion. I love all your contributions here!

  8. Another aspect that I have observed (and had to talk myself out of using on my own children) is ‘forcing’ children to hug/cuddle/kiss/say “I love you” to close friends and family. It’s sweet to be hugged by a child, but I have to remind myself that I would hate to be forced to give someone a hug when I didn’t feel like it, even if it were someone I love. And so it makes the hug an oxymoron in a way.

  9. Yes, Holly, I totally agree. Hugs are great when we’re “feeling” them.

  10. Hi Janet, thanks for the reply! After putting much thought into it and reading some of your other articles, I basically crafted the exact approach you recommended, above. It worked within 2 weeks. She is now 27 months old and hasn’t pushed or given an uninvited hug in over a month. I can tell she is much happier and that other kids are at ease around her.

    Your approach worked, spot on! Thanks.

    1. Wow, Kari that is great to hear. Thanks for sharing good news!

  11. avatar justmethoughts says:

    My toddler son also insisted that I try to intervene so people wouldn’t pat his head. He hated random people doing that and I can’t blame him.

    1. avatar Katharine says:

      What did you say to get people to stop touching his head? My 12 mth old has beautiful red hair and well meaning strangers and friends/family that are new to her, often pat her head and she doesn’t seem to like it.

      1. avatar Chantelle says:

        Body Autonomy is such a big area I feel strongly about

        I had similar with my 2yo daughter & asked my Mumma Group for their thoughts – everyone had varying responses // comfort levels with it – but, in my instance with my daughter…I need to be her voice until she is confident to be her own…she finds it most uncomfortable & talks about it a few times after the fact – so, when it happens – I try force myself to say “please ask, before you touch” [I used to freeze up & just dismiss it as my overreacting when it happened prior …when she really needed me to protect her physical boundaries instead]

  12. I need your advice. My daughter is almost three years old. She has always been careful with people, would never go a stranger, it would take her a long time to warm up to any person. She is much more open now, plays with kids, runs around, but she does not like hugs or kisses from them as well as adults. She is a loving person, hugs me and her dad, her little brother and only a few people she knows/likes/trusts. I have used to tell other people not to touch her (I wish I knew about ‘easily cry’ before!) but what about other kids?? Girls and boys her age and a little older want to give her a hug and she runs away and says NO! Even if they played well before. They seem to be very upset with her and I feel awkward before other mums.. What should I say to them? Thank you for your response.

    1. Lena, she sounds very normal to me! Your daughter’s behavior is perfectly understandable… and I think it’s fantastic that she can say NO and run away when she doesn’t like something. I’m surprised that the other children would get upset and that their parents wouldn’t understand. I always remind parents, sensitive is good! The brightest children are the most sensitive and aware. Your daughter has a right to her wishes and opinions, so I hope you’ll keep supporting her to trust herself. I would get into the habit of ignoring what others think as much as possible and focus on being your daughter’s advocate and biggest fan.

  13. Hi Janet,

    We have a neighbor friends that have a 5 year old and my sons are 2.5 and 5 weeks. The five year old doesn’t seem to have boundaries with hugs and kisses and I have noticed that when she thinks I’m not seeing them play, she will kiss or hug or pick him up(because I have set boundaries previously). So when I see this happen, I kindly reiterate that hugs and kisses are for hello and goodbye or that my son is a big boy and doesn’t need to be picked up. Her parents don’t seem to acknowledge the broken boundaries- how do you get this message across to another adult? Also, my solution has been to NEVER, take my eyes off them playing together. I don’t want to be the one to have to set someone else’s child straight but When I leave it opened for the other parents to intervene it is left unaddressed. Also, because the five year old actually “sneaks” it makes me really uncomfortable. What are your thoughts on this?

  14. Hi Janet,
    I love reading every one of your posts and putting these methods to practice with our dear 20 month old son.
    I’m so glad I found this particular post when I searched for issues around too much affection, but I’m hoping you might be able to help with a specific conundrum we are facing that wasn’t quite covered – What to do when another child of the same age is overly affectionate with your own child.

    I have a dear friend who’s daughter is 21 months old and is very affectionate with adults and other children and is often thanked and encouraged for this. She will regularly give very enthusiastic and impromptu hugs out of nowhere, which while very sweet, make me think boundaries might be an issue. She’s such a sweet little energetic, active and sometimes loud little one – and my quieter and contemplative little boy has often struggled with this, even early on when they were less mobile, and she would shriek and startle him while climbing on or very close to him. She was mobile looong before he was and would often get far too close for his comfort, at which point I would calmly step in and try to gently redirect her (while trying not to offend her or her mother!) and acknowledge my son’s own discomfort with the interaction. He’s always quick to get over these things and is much more tolerant of her now, which was helped greatly when he was finally walking.
    However, it’s her ‘out of the blue’ enthusiastic hugs that now bother him and I really want to respond in a way that is respectful to her (and that won’t offend her mum!) but that clearly supports my son to assert autonomy over his own body.
    When she hugs him he will often get a look of discomfort on his face and will try to pull away, then if it goes on too long (because I have been hesitant to step in, in case I offend anyone!) then he will get upset and call out to me or come and find me. Again, he’s very quick to get over this once the hugging stops. I make sure I acknowledge he didn’t like what happened, but so far in the heat of the moment the only thing I’ve come up with to say in front of her and her mum is “She really likes to hug you because she likes you, but if you don’t like it you can say “no thank you” and move away”.
    Any ideas for how I can support both of them for more positive interactions?? I really don’t want him to start to lose confidence or become afraid or dislike play dates with her, and I don’t want to hurt her affectionate vibrant spirit!
    I want him to know that he has a right to say no to that kind of contact if it doesn’t feel right (whether from other children or adults) so that he grows up with a healthy respect for his own and other’s personal boundaries.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
    Regards, Emma

  15. Hi Janet,
    My son is six years old and in first grade. He has always been affectionate, as am I. It was never an issue when he was younger because he was always around people who welcomed his hugs. However, the past couple years have been a struggle because he has been aggressively friendly with his classmates. We have talked about personal space and respecting boundaries. We have books about it. I have instructed him to ask for hugs first and to keep them brief. I have told him to save his hugs for me or give them to the teacher if he can’t wait. I have suggested giving high-fives in lieu of a hug. He seems to understand but in the heat of the moment he just can’t help himself. I’m not sure if this is an impulse control issue. I notice that when he plays with his friends at the playground he gets caught up in the excitement and once a child lays hands on another child (in fun), my sons feels that the rules no longer apply and all touch is now acceptable. He will roll around with another child and then lay on top of him, or, while playing cops and robbers, he will detain the robber in an extended hug. The children often have to tell him to stop but he still won’t let go or get off until I intervene. And even then he doesn’t seem to understand that his behavior was inappropriate until we talk later. He seems to feel that his actions are justified because his intent was good. The other parents understand this is something we are working on so they are working with their own children to teach them to tell my son when his “touch” is unwelcome. I am grateful for this but can’t expect everyone to accommodate my child’s issues. I should add that I am single and he is an only child so he doesn’t have the opportunity to experience setting boundaries with other children in the home. Also, he has Sensory Processing Disorder and I am wondering if part if this is his way of seeking sensory input. His teachers and doctor don’t feel he is on the spectrum nor suffers from ADHD (although the listening skills at this age could use some work…haha) so those would not be factors. I am running out of ideas and find myself resorting to just telling him to stop all the time. I know that nagging is not the answer but I am spent. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  16. avatar Janet Morris says:

    Janet, here is the inconsistency I see: you advocate treating children with the same respect that we would give other adults and yet you fully admit to hugging freely and unasked. Do you think the peer pressure to accept an unwanted hug is any less from family, other adults? I get frustrated when someone comes up to me (especially someone I barely know or have just met) and with a hello or goodbye give me a big hug, even though I have extended my hand for a shake. The excuse, “I am a hugger!” seems to cover all sins. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable, but to blurt “Please don’t hug me!” as they are swooping in seems mean and rude. My husband has a big personal space bubble and he DETESTS this behavior. The only people he enjoys touching is his immediate family. Thoughts?

    1. I think you are misunderstanding my admission about being a hugger. Yes, it’s my instinct to give hugs, but I am not suggesting that I barrel through and misread people’s signals. I’m overly sensitive, if anything. But also, adults are quite different from children in that they do have that ability to extend their hand (as you do), to signal their preference in a greeting. Young children do not have that ability or the power to keep someone at bay. Also, they are not as able to contextualize, understanding for example that their cousin’s boisterous affection towards them is not something they should replicate with a stranger. So, as much as you and your husband may detest the embraces, you can understand and not feel objectified by them. It is in these crucial early years that children learn about consent and respecting others’ boundaries.

  17. avatar Leanna Boyle says:

    This is what pisses me off about the show Barney & Friends. He is a guy in a dinosaur suit who hugs kids he doesn’t even know and makes them do the same. There are absolutely no boundaries!

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