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Our toddler shouldn’t have to hug relatives. How do we hold boundaries?

(iStock/María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Q: Do you have suggestions for inevitable holiday-related conversations about boundaries with family members, specifically around telling relatives that our toddler does not have to hug them or eat anything he doesn’t want to? I have some very opinionated people who will be spending time around my child at Thanksgiving, and I’m mentally preparing myself for these tough conversations.

A: Thanks for writing in! There’s no doubt that many of us are not raising our children the way that we were raised; many of us were brought up to hug, kiss, sit on laps, eat what was on our plate and talk to adults, whether we were comfortable or not. We were taught, fairly early, that our bodies didn’t quite belong to us; they were the property of our caregivers. Our misgivings, hesitancy and fear were inconvenient, and many of us are still living with those trespassed boundaries today. And because there have been dramatic shifts in boundaries and children in the past 50 years, it is not uncommon to have widely varying norms under one roof during the holidays.

The first thing you must do is not take the behavior of other family members personally. This means that you are assuming that your family members aren’t consciously making you or your toddler feel uncomfortable, and that their behavior isn’t really about you. When you decide that their behavior isn’t personal, you will be free to create and uphold the boundaries that feel right for you and your child.

Second, if you decide that your child will hug if he wants to and eat what he wants to, how can you smoothly handle this so that you aren’t purposely shaming your family members? If you open the holiday season with lectures about boundaries and bodily autonomy, I can almost guarantee a miserable dinner. Instead, can you teach your son how to first-bump? High-five? Wave? Smile? Toddlers, by nature, are quick to hide behind a parent’s leg, so intervening with, “Samuel is happy to be here. Let me give you a hug for both of us!” will get the hug out of the way while taking the attention away from your son. If the family members demand hugs or kisses, be ready with your statement. “Yeah, Samuel isn’t into that right now, so we are going to pass.” Repeat as necessary until the family member gets it. As long as you’re delivering your message kindly and firmly, you aren’t responsible for how other people feel. You are responsible for your own tone and behavior, and for protecting your son’s boundaries.

As for the food, put everything served on his plate and push it around. If he screeches, get another little plate with just the food he wants and put that in front of him. If family members push and push, have a phrase ready, such as: “Samuel front-loaded his calories today,” or, “He is holding out for pie.” Then pivot to a question or topic for adults. Again, you could lecture about a body recognizing its own hunger cues and not forcing children to eat, but this is neither the place nor the time.

To prepare yourself for these days, try to find an advocate who will be there: a spouse or partner, another family member who gets it or anyone who will have your back. I would also get in the mirror and repeat phrases that are firm, friendly and clear. You may feel dumb, but practicing what you want to say helps your body and mind remember it in the moment. For extra reinforcement, read Nedra Glover Tawwab’s “Set Boundaries, Find Peace.” It’s a lovely and direct reminder of how to set and keep boundaries. Remember: We are stopping generations of adults from trampling over children’s rights and bodies. You don’t need to be perfect. Good luck.

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