Please Don’t Handle The Children

“My husband’s only brother got married, and we were all invited to be in the wedding, even Nicky.  I’m so proud to say that Nicky walked down the aisle successfully, even when nobody (not even his own grandparents) thought that he would understand what was asked of him.

Then, when it was time to exit down the aisle, a stranger from the bride’s side reached out and touched Nicky’s head as he went.  It broke his concentration on the task at hand, and when he realized he was surrounded by strangers and one had just touched him, he burst into tears.  It was a huge lesson (for quite a few of us) in respecting the personal space of even the smallest of people.  When my husband and I discussed it afterward, it made me think of you.” – Caroline (the mom who shared her story in 7 Parenting Secrets That Change Lives)

Perhaps children should wear warning labels: “I might look cute and what I’m doing might look easy, but chances are, I’m putting 100% of my most serious effort into whatever it is. For this and a load of other reasons, please don’t touch me.”

Why do we think we have the right to touch children? The younger the child, the more welcome we feel to touch and hold him or her without permission. It seems to me that we get this totally backward…shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I’m a touchy, feely, demonstrative person. Perhaps overly so. As I mentioned in Teaching Children Consent and How to Give Affection With RespectI impulsively hug adults I’ve just met. I touch people on the shoulder to emphasize “I like you”, “I care” or “I’m sorry”.

But the younger the person, the less able they are to say “no”, glare at us disapprovingly, or push us away. Young children are especially incapable of indicating more subtle discomfort. “That doesn’t feel good. That tickles. Please don’t, I don’t know you yet. You interrupted me.”

Some believe it’s okay for babies and toddlers to be swooped up, “loved up” (as one parent put it), thrown up in the air, tickled, rough-housed, pushed down slides, etc. Yes, they might seem to enjoy those things. When we’re smiling and laughing, our babies want to mirror this, and they are the very best sports we’ll ever find. They’re all about trust.

But don’t we want to ensure their security, self-confidence, respect for their boundaries and those of others? Every interaction children have teaches them their place in the world, how they should be treated and how they should relate to others. Children wholeheartedly accept the level of respect they are given.

Touch is a fundamental need for babies, but the way we touch matters. Infant expert Magda Gerber has been criticized because of her recommendation to ask babies, or at least warn them, before picking them up, even when they’re crying. She believed infants could and should be given choices and the little bit of time they need to make them. “With infants we have to be even more careful, because they cannot tell us…”  For advising this ultra-sensitivity and respect, Gerber is sometimes misunderstood as being against picking up babies.

It’s vital that we teach our children that they belong to themselves. They must know they have a right to their personal space and boundaries.  This is not a lesson that can wait until age 3 or 4, and it’s a lesson only we can provide, because society is way behind on this one. We may have to resort to the warning labels.

I  share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

(Photo by Details of the Day on Flickr)


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

  1. I’m sorry, but I think this is ridiculous. I understand if a child says no or indicates with his body that he/she is uncomfortable that we respect them and not touch them, but I do not think that I should have to get permission to touch a child on the head or hold their hand; especially if they approach me and are curious. I think it is so much more dangerous to be overly sensitive with our children and with others toward our children. I think as long as the child is comfortable and ok, then allow people to be people and love on kids.

    1. I think the point is that they can’t tell you if its okay. So its about respecting that and them as a human. If someone just came up to you and put their hand on your head how would you feel? I agree we don’t want to go too far down the road of over sensitivity, but I have sat watching my 4 month old be stroked and patted by relatives who seemed completely unaware of how uncomfortable she was, how over tired and in the end I rescued her and we went and sat in a quiet room where she could just be. What is people’s obsession with touching other people’s babies and why is it okay, when you would never do it to an adult. I always ask my now 10 month old daughter if I can pick her up, mostly she raises her arms but every now and then she looks up but carries on playing, clearly she doesn’t always want to be touched and I’m glad I give her the opportunity to express that.

    2. For the sake of this particular story, the child wasn’t even paying attention to the person who suddenly touched him. He didn’t approach the person and wasn’t curious about them. This whole article is talking about adults taking the liberty to decide how and when to engage physically with a child even in small ways. Before even hearing of RIE or Magda or Janet, I decided to observe children when I interacted with them, and came to the realisation and conclusion on my own the very things this article is discussing.

      1. Amanda Presland says:

        This discussion is TOO overthought. Why oh WHY do we have to analyse everything? Life is about experiences. Good and bad. The child who (innocently) had their head touched at a wedding) is hardly going to be scarred for life!) What about resilience? Every single one of us needs to learn to interact with all sorts of humans on this earth. This was NOT an abusive interaction. It was at the very least a ‘surprising’ interaction. The human meant no harm at all! Being a baby or a child is the only time in your life when other people are really interested in you! Strangers smile and make a fuss. What is wrong with that? You cannot expect PERFECTION from others. You cannot dictate to them HOW they should handle your child or KNOW how to handle your child. If they are not ‘sensitive’ to your child’s needs, then that is a resilience experience for your child and really not a ‘big deal.’ Of course, a caring parent would swoop in and intervene, if the child was genuinely distressed! Many humans are biologically programmed to be drawn to and interested in babies and children. It results in the child being protected and nurtured. I would be alarming if we had a Society that shunned babies and children because they were afraid of misinterpreting if they ‘wanted an interaction’ with the adult. What a sad world that would be.

        1. This is a really interesting point – do we NEED bad experiences in our lives at a young age, so that when we inevitably encounter them at an older age we’re less traumatised by the event because it takes the shock and surprise down a peg or two. Obviously there is nuance and degrees of trauma here but the general principle of not shielding your child from all bad stuff, just the worst bad stuff builds a more resilient and grown up kid better prepared for the real world where siht happens?

        2. “You cannot dictate to them HOW they should handle your child or KNOW how to handle your child. If they are not ‘sensitive’ to your child’s needs, then that is a resilience experience for your child and really not a ‘big deal.’ “

          Sounds a bit close minded. What about children who are highly sensitive… Or on the Austrian spectrum? Just keep your hands to yourself… and teach your kids their body is theirs. You sound like a bad mom

        3. Niamh Keane says:

          Nope nope nope!!! “Many humans are biologically programmed to be drawn to babies and children”??!!! Do you hear what that sounds like???!!! I love my 2 boys and I cuddle them all the time. When they are open to that. I don’t force them to cuddle if they aren’t feeling like it. One of my boys is more cuddly than the other, and it almost breaks my heart not to cuddle them both the exact same.. but I am respectful of both boys different needs/desires for touch and if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. I especially do not think it’s ok for any ol’ stranger to touch them just because they are “most interesting” at that age or the adults are drawn to them… That is really messed up! Adults are always in a position of power over children, because of our greater size, strength, intelligence etc… And as intelligent creatures, we can respect this power difference and choose not to use it to our advantage. When we give our little people the authority over their own bodies, we teach them how to respect themselves and how to treat others too. If we take advantage of this power imbalance, because we can and we want to, it teaches them that they can if they want to, when they are in a position of power one day. Is this really what we want to teach our kids?? This is not about over-analysing a simple head pat, it’s an example of a much bigger and more important lesson here, if we choose to hear it

    3. If a child is coming up to you, looking you in the eyes and is touching you, they aren’t pulling away, they don’t aren’t crying or screaming, theyes aren’t saying no, than you’re normally ok. However, with massage it is crucial to ask if it is ok to touch them. You are touching them in a completely different magnet, and it teaches them as they grow that it is ok to say no to being touched if they do not want it. There’s times that we don’t want to be touched, so what makes it ok to touch a young child without their permission? It’s double standards. It’s like the whole go hug your grandma scenario. It makes a child feel insecure and that even though they say no or they don’t want to that they have to do it anyways.

    4. Additionally….this is the beginning of teaching our children boundaries to Keep Them Safe! Current issues are a horrrrrrid reminder of that!

    5. Caroline Kolb says:

      35 years ago, I was appalled at people who would grab, hug, tickle, or touch my child without asking me first. Now I am dealing with my grandchildren and I recognize the importance of addressing the child. Even if the child approaches me, I address them before helping them, touching g them. etc. As for infants, even newborns, I try to speak first, because it gives them a chance to know you are there and orient to the transition. The more I deal with young children, the more I see that there is an autonomous personality in there. If you have a close bond you may be able to read their signals for non-verbal
      consent. Othrwise, USE YOUR WORDS!

    6. But how do you or even they know when they are okay with it? Developmentally, children’s brains are not yet wired to process a question and then automate a response. Adults operate on a different wavelength and it takes time for children to find the pulse on their surroundings. Their intuition has to catch up to their brain wiring and often that happens after an adult has already swooped them up or smootched a kiss. Just something to consider. You do you, Mama, but I’d rather teach my son this “sensitive” way of communication so that when his brain catches up, he will learn to do the same toward others regarding their spatial boundaries.

    7. Don’t children deserve the same respect you do? Or the same respect older/more verbal adults do? Or are children better off being treated in a manor that meets our wants before their own?

    8. Lindsay your comment makes no sense and completely misses the point of the author. You say ‘as long as the child is comfortable and Ok’, did you not read the article? Children cannot easily express to ADULTS that they do not consent to being touched. So you more than likely will not know if you are making that child uncomfortable. But, what is obvious to me is that, if you are a stranger to the child or do not have a close relationship with them, they will most certainly NOT be ‘OK’ as you say, with touch. How do you like being approached and touched by strangers or people you have just met? Is it ok for them to stroke your hair or tickle you? Just because they are a child, doesn’t make it OK. So check for consent, or keep your hands to yourself.

  2. I agree with protecting children from unsolicited touching/getting in their space. I had a no-touch rule other than immediate family before he was 6 months old because of the H1N1 flu that he could not yet be immunized against – and was surprised that some would not take no for an answer. Sometimes I physically had to get between him and the person who just “had to” tickle his foot. On a related note I was proud of him the other day (he is 6) when a stranger who worked at a booth helping children plant seeds told him to come with her (a few feet away) to plant seeds with her. She didn’t see me watching, nor did she ask him if his grownup would allow it – he told her “I have to ask my mom first”, found me, and I gave permission. I e-mailed the owner later to explain that it wasn’t appropriate for her to try to take my child with her nor was it wise to have a child handle seeds who might be allergic. They agreed.

  3. I get this. As a body worker, I’m trained to treat my clients like this, ask permission, be sensitive to how my touch could startle, or surprise or cross a boundary. I think about when I go get my 6 month old up from his crib in the night when the lights are out. I make a sound and gently make contact, even if he’s already worked up. Then I pick him up, and often by rolling him gently to his side. I think babies totally deserve that sensitivity.
    I think we all do.

  4. Kris Hughes says:

    Hmmm – lacking in nuance. First: How well do you know the child? How well can you read the child? etc. etc. Second: There is also a lot of evidence that we all benefit from being touched. Personal space should be respected, but the current thinking on personal space may make people draw back from healthy touching. Third: I’m not always thrilled when kids come up and shove their half-eaten cookie in my face, grab me by the legs, or whack me with their toys. Works both ways!

    1. So, this parent’s (and child’s) experience was invalid in your view? Regarding “works both ways”, you aren’t really comparing your own self control to that of a toddler, are you?

    2. I’m not saying this with a rude tone, but truly…be realistic…most people don’t think for one second about reading a child before swooping them up into a game or trying to force hugs and kisses on them, let alone even seemingly lesser touches like a pat on the head etc. They just do it with no regard to the child.

      I don’t think toddlers even know what a sticky or half eaten cookie “is,” and when they’re shoving it in your face they’re probably trying to offer or share a bite, merely modelling feeding someone the way someone has probably fed them. Just one example from the examples you mentioned. Even being whacked with toys by a child…they often don’t even know they are whacking you! I’ve had toy trucks and cars driven over my legs and it hurts! But they don’t know they aren’t doing it as gently as I may do if driving a toy car along their leg…

      1. We all benefit from being touched in a loving and caring way when we feel safe and secure (usually by people we know). I was in a lift (elevator) with my 2 year old daughter a few weeks ago and an elderly mad started stroking her cheek. He didn’t mean anything by it, but she was totally freaked out. He crossed a line of personal space that he had no right to cross, and she definitely did not benefit from his touch. In contrast, another elderly man today saw her, said hello and told her “I like your hair!” – I felt this was a much more appropriate way to bond or interact with her.

  5. When my oldest was somewhere around a year old I took her to meet my out of town relatives.
    As a young inexperienced mom. When we would say hello or goodbye I’d tell her give aunt or uncle so and so a kiss. My aunt stopped me in my tracks and said dont “make” or “tell” her to do that.. .I was caught off guard but listened to her and I’m glad I did.
    Just for that very reason…maybe she didn’t want to give so and so a kiss. And from then on we just waved and blew kisses from afar. In this weird day and age I tell that story to all young moms and dads whether you have a boy or a girl.

  6. Well now I feel awful. My kids are 4 and 2 1/2 and I never thought of this.

    1. Feel great instead, because now you know 😉

  7. I have a child who does not like people period. We aren’t sure how it happened, perhaps it has something to do with his vision ( he is under treatment for crossed eyes). maybe not seeing people clearly has made him unsure and afraid. He’s a cutie and people are drawn to him with his glasses and mop full of curls, so we’ve had to learn to be his shield and his voice because even him moving away doesn’t stop some people. My oldest is Mr. America loves everyone never met a stranger blows kisses hugs people has a mean hand shake and a million dollar smile for everyone. The little one has learned to blow kiss and give a high five …if he wants too.
    It has made me aware that children have feelings too and just how different they are.

  8. I guess this is why kids have always liked me. I never touched one without permission and I treat them like ‘little people’. If they want to talk to me even if I don’t quite understand everything they have to say I listen and nod and smile. It doesn’t take long of treating them with respect before I find my lap and heart full.

  9. Babies are cute but I don’t touch a strangers baby. As a mother,I wouldn’t want people, I did not know, touching her for a couple different reasons. Germs are of great concern along with it makes me uncomfortable. I do not know you! Just wave and smile.. Admire from a short distance. If you’re family then my baby should know who you are, and I think it’s ok. As, long as your not kissing all over her face. Again, germs! Affection from family and being loved is important for a child to learn. And if they are taught who is who it will avoid the outbursts when they are older. If a child shows you they are not comfortable with your touch, no matter who are or the age of the child, then do not force it.

  10. Sarah Ali says:

    I can identify with this. When I’m at my in-laws all they want to do is cuddle and kiss him (possibly because he looks very different from them). I’ve never liked it and don’t think my son likes it either (I’ve always waited for him to come for cuddles – with difficulty – there have been many times, when all I’ve wanted to do is cuddle him).He likes his space and he enjoys just getting on with his own thing (he is very affectionate though).
    In a way it’s interesting: he doesn’t like them cuddling and kissing him – despite the fact that he does with my own family.
    On a side – I’ve always found it difficult to deal with people who say ‘aw isn’t he gorgeous! what a beautiful boy!’ – what am I supposed to say ‘no’? I’ve always answered ‘yes, he’s really well behaved’ because it makes me feel uncomfortable.

  11. Sally Grasso says:

    Ergh. Reminds me of how I hated to be tickled as a kid. I remember I wouldn’t be able to breath, I couldn’t really control my body because the tickling would make me convulse and I would laugh involuntarily. I would say “Stop! I don’t like it!” and they would reply “Then why are you laughing?”. I think I ended up hitting people to stop them from tickling me.

    1. Ditto. To this day I am overly sensitive to tickling sensations and often react instinctively with a swat. I take a lot of care in asking my toddler if he wants to be tickled (he’ll usually ask for the “Tickle Monster” when he is in the mood) and deeply respect his wishes not to be tickled.

    2. Your memory is awesome!

  12. Michele Engel says:

    I agree 100% with the author on this. Of course, if it’s a matter of safety, one would move the child out of danger without asking if necessary (as you would an adult, also), but other than that, why not treat a child with the same respect for their personal space that you would an adult? I’ve found that children respect me for keeping a bit of a distance when I first meet them. If and when they warm up to me and desire more closeness, they’re very good at communicating that through their body language and/or verbally.

  13. Dear Janet,

    I agree with you. I even have a couple of blog posts like this. My kids don’t like strangers touching them or being interrupted. But touching happens every time we get out of the house. At first I was on guard to prevent it, but wasn’t successful a lot of the times, and was stressed most of the time. I noticed that my own attitude influences my children’s. But I realised that I can’t change all of them. They do havw good intentions after all, and that is what vounts. I relaxed a bit about caressing the hair or the arm of the children. I still friendly and politely inform them that the kids don’t like it.
    It is a culture thing. I think now even that it might help children trust the world and the adults. Teaches them about appropriate touching and giving them affection. Trust in community and connection with it, belonging. What do you think?

  14. When strangers violate the personal space of your child, what are some good responses? My husband and I really struggle to step in for our children to shut down strangers without coming off as overly harsh or rude. It isn’t always possible to just move or physically block them (eg in a highchair at a restaurant). While I love the anecdotes of pregnant women responding to unwanted belly rubs by rubbing the offender’s belly (demonstrating how awkward and unacceptable it is to rub a stranger’s belly), I just can’t bring myself to such a response. I know that people don’t have ill intentions, but I need a firm, courteous response to have ready as it’s often so shocking to me that I struggle to respond (because I would never think of touching a random kid in public, let alone aggressively tickling them!)

  15. “I might look cute and what I’m doing might look easy, but chances are, I’m putting 100% of my most serious effort into whatever it is. For this and a load of other reasons, please don’t touch me.”

    i know it’s a bit long, but it should be on a tshirt.

  16. Megan Deutmeyer says:

    Janet, thank you so much for this insightful post. Do you have any suggestions on tactful responses when aquaintances touch our children without permission? I found myself in an awkward situation the other day when a neighbor tickled my one-year-old’s belly.

  17. It bothers me so much when my daughter sits in her stroller and people start touching her. We also wouldn’t do that with people sitting in a wheelchair? I’m glad my 2 year old goes to a RIE- inspired kindergarden. She now puts her hand up and says: “no! space for me!” She might say that to me, my husband or strangers and I’m so happy she does

  18. This reminds me of people grabbing pregnant women’s stomachs. I hate it. My daughter’s teacher ran up to me and started maniacally rubbing my stomach. I said stop and closed my coat, pushing her away, and she felt hurt.

    As for unwanted touching of toddlers, the worst offenders seem to be people over 70…

  19. I love everything Janet says, but much of it looks fabulous on paper, but just isn’t possible or feasible in practice. Much of it works off the premise we have endless amounts of time to negotiate and respect our children’s boundaries, when frankly so many of us are pushed for time or don’t have an endless stream of people to help us navigate little people. Sometimes you need to shove your toddler in the car seat because you need to get to work ! That said, random people touching toddlers is odd.

    1. Thank you! Though it does sound like you are misinterpreting my advice. Where are you getting “we have endless amounts of time to negotiate and respect our children’s boundaries”? Nothing I recommend takes extra time, it’s an attitude.

  20. As a person who waa touched often as a child because I had white blond hair in a country where people were mostly dark haired I cannot agree more. not only does it break concentration, it’s just outright disrespectful and rude. I remember feeling violated and wishing I looked like others so people would stop petting my head like I was an inanimate doll that couldn’t give consent anyways. remember that just because the kid is cute doesn’t mean they want to be touched. as an adult I do my best to protect my dog and now also my son from random strangers touch

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