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. Do you mean we should never roughhouse with our babies, or just not with less familiar babies?

    We have a sort of ritual, whenever the three of us end up in my husband and my bed, my son will immediately crawl, top speed, for the pillows. When he gets there he sort of pauses, and if I can see his face, there’s a grin of anticipation. One of us grabs him and flips him onto his back. He squeals with delight the second he feels contact, then again when he lands back on the bed.

    Obviously this game is something we initiated (much more gently when he was younger). But now, he seems to be communicating his readiness, and even chooses the beginning of the game. It’s entirely on his terms now, though not in any way in his control. Isn’t rough housing a healthy, important interaction? Especially for dads, but for both of us I would think.

    1. Meagan, that sounds respectful and responsive to me. This definitely isn’t about “never” wrestling, etc., it’s about being mindful of our child’s point of view and his or her ability to indicate readiness and participate actively. It’s about doing things with children (that we are sure are welcome) rather than doing things to them.

  2. Charlotte says:

    This post is so timely. This evening we were eating at a restaurant that we have frequented three times in recent months for different family celebrations. Each time we had a large group. One waitress has been there all three times. Although she’s never been our primary waitress, she has helped the other waitresses wait on our group. We have three children. Each time she has gravitated toward our 4 year old son – talking more to him, encouraging him to eat his food, etc. The first time we thought she was working hard for a tip. The second time it seemed a bit much. This evening, while we were getting everyone settled, she asked him what he wanted to drink. He told her Sprite, but none of us heard the exchange. Not long after that, she brought him and our 2 year old a Sprite. We rarely give the kids Sprite and promptly asked our primary waitress for water. Later the odd waitress held up his plate to show us that he ate half of his food and asked if he could have a lollipop. We were annoyed, but it wasn’t the end of the world. As we wrapped up eating and visiting, she came up to him and tickled him. He giggled, but I could tell he wasn’t totally comfortable. He has Asperger’s. One of his sensory issues is being touched suddenly. He seemed to hold back his usual outburst, because she doted on him. I was so flabbergasted that this woman felt it was okay to touch our child after meeting us, briefly, three times. My first urge was to pull her aside and tell her that her behavior was not appropriate, but we opted to leave instead due to the group. I plan to talk to him about it being okay to say he doesn’t want to be touched. How do you recommend handling such things? (alerting the adult)

    1. Ugh, sorry to hear that, Charlotte. I like your idea about talking to your son. I’d also clearly let him know that this woman’s behavior was inappropriate (which I’m sure you’ll do). Maybe the lesson here will be that grown ups make mistakes and do wrong things and that, yes, he should definitely feel okay about pushing her away or saying “don’t touch me”…or just “no” might be easier. But those things are hard for young children to do… So, mostly I would reassure him.

    2. last week i had a waiter at a restaurant litterally blowing at my baby’s face for 20 minutes. she was calm, in her stroller, we were trying to enjoy a calm meal and the guy actually kneeled behind my boyfriend’s chair and planted himself there, blowing in her face and touching her hands. i was infuriated. eventually i stopped eating and picked her up, and went for a little walk, and when we came back, she didn’t want to stay in the stroller, so we had to take turns eating. unfortunately the waiter didn’t speak my language, i wasn’t sure i would be able to express myself without being rude. when we left, i was only sorry i didn’t intervene earlier. we don’t touch other people’s kids.

  3. I noticed this just the other day. I run a home daycare and when a grandma came to pick up her grandson she russled the hair of another child. Any ideas on what to say in a situtation like that?

    1. Krista, I think all you can do is explain to the child afterwards what has happened and let him know you didn’t think that was okay.

  4. Thanks for this article Janet. My oldest daughter is now 6 and she does not like to be touched by adults nor will she talk to adults she does not know (even in a familar setting). When she was small strangers would touch her in the store (she has piercing blue eyes) She did NOT like it. After a few times I realised I needed to step up and once any conversation started with a stranger I was ready to stop them touching her. I got very blunt with people. Even though they were upset I knew I needed to protect my daughter.

    We have also had several incidences of strangers photographing my daughter without permission. She hates the camera as much as being touched.

    We are heading to Australia in July for a wedding and she is a flowergirl. This post reminded me that I will need to talk to my daughter before we go and prepare her!

    1. Fiona, we’ve just been to Australia with our 4.5 year-old blonde daughter – the (mostly) Japanese tourists were fascinated by her and kept touching her/her hair, etc – the grande finale was while we were at the airport waiting to fly home and 2 young Japanese men smiled at her (fine by me and her), then came and asked me very politely (with almost no English words, mostly gestures) whether they could take a photo of her – this had happened a couple of times on our trip and she wasn’t bothered and neither was I (please nobody tell me how naive I may/may not be) so we said “ok” – at which point one came and stood next to her with all the typical V-signs while the other took the photo!! I was amazed – fortunately my daughter already has my very warped sense of humour and nearly died trying not to laugh until they’d gone – we’ve talked lots about it being rude to laugh in somebody’s face (oops!) – we thought it was hilarious but other children might/would not. Be prepared to handle a very bizarre scenario! But enjoy the wedding! 🙂

  5. PS Your last line about warning labels is so funny! My husband and I have joked MANY times about making a tshirt for our daughter that says ‘don’t touch me, talk to me or look at me!’

  6. My husband is Jewish and we made the trek to Israel to visit family last October. Hank was just eight months old and by the time we got there I was ready for anyone else to hold him! But their culture is SO much different. It’s all about asking the child if they want to be held and holding out their arms, if the child denies, they don’t mind and wait a few minutes, hours or even days before they try again — until the child feels comfortable enough to choose to go to them. Everyone did this! But it’s something that we, here in America, don’t do at all, or even consider doing (at least I hadn’t). Maybe we should? It boosted Hank’s independence and confidence that he had a choice. Kudos to their respect of children’s space.

    1. Janet Lomba says:

      I agree with the Israeli way of doing things. I always check with the parents, then say Hello to the child – whether friend or relative. A child can have a tantrum if they are picked up by someone they aren’t ready for, much like a cat will wiggle and scratch. We expect it from animals and are careful when around a pet who is not used to us. Why can’t we give the same or GREATER RESPECT to children?

  7. I had an incident yesterday. I live in Hong Kong and was happy to have an English speaking person help me translate my concerns to the non-english speaking perpatrator of “head patting” of my son. I explained with a smile that, “my son doesnt like it, and we believe nobody really likes to be pat on the head by a stranger.” the translator (the shop keeper) was very understanding. The elderly woman was a little taken aback! Hopefuly food for thought for her? INteractions with strangers now that I respect my child’s rights are quite different. I thought I would become very agressive as i have seen some parents in the past (dont touch my child!), however, i feel very calm, i protect my boy (he hides or i lift him) i dont rush, i speak to my boy and explain reasons why that person did, or does what they did, then if the person is still there, explain gently and kindly that he prefers to wave hello quietly when meeting someone for the first time.

    1. Sarah, thanks for sharing this story…sounds like you handle these situations beautifully.

  8. My son is almost 18 months old, and he is very good at indicating that he’s uncomfortable. I watch him sometimes in the daycare when other kids get too close to him, he gently pushes them back. With adults, he pushes with his hands, and makes a really annoyed face. It’s interesting for me, because I tend to be a pushover (and it makes me very uncomfortable to hurt people’s feelings). Still, I gently take him away from the situation, or use my body as a deterrent.

  9. My son was six weeks early, The NICU nurses urged us to be careful about exposing him to germs until he was 6 months old because apparently premature babies immune systems take a bit longer to kick in. I probably took their advice a little more seriously than I needed to, so I took him out very sparingly until he was 6 months old. When I did start to take him out, it was shocking to me how many complete strangers think it’s totally fine to reach out and squeeze his cheeks. I’m not quite as germ phobic as I was then but I still think it’s disrespectful. They would never do that to an adult. I often want to do it to them and then just carry on the conversation as if everything is normal. When my husband tickles my son’s ultra cute cheeks or bops his nose out of the blue, I do it right back to him. What do you think is the best way to handle strangers touching your baby? My son doesn’t seem to mind that much but he doesn’t seem to like it either. Do I say, “Charlie, is it OK if this person touches you?” or “why don’t you get to know him before you touch him?” (seems like that would create a lot of tension) or just talk to my son about it afterwards?

    1. Ugh, that must have been extremely upsetting… I remember people offering their fingers for my babies to suck! Yikes, talk about germs!

      Lainey, sometimes it’s too late to stop the action, but I would at least acknowledge to your son, “That surprised you when your cheeks were touched!” Perhaps the person will “get” it, but since this is the height of insensitivity…maybe not. Then I would talk to your son afterwards. “Some people think it’s okay to touch people they don’t know. It isn’t. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop that from happening.”

      1. I often ‘sportscast’ if something like this happens to my son. I might say ‘the lady touched your head and you seem surprised / shocked. I think she was trying to be friendly but perhaps it didn’t feel right for you. That’s ok.’ It’s partly because I find it very difficult to ‘challenge’ the adult about their behaviour. I hope that by narrating the incident for my son, they might understand his feelings better. It’s all I can do really. However, if it’s a family member I find this much harder to do and sometimes wait until later which is less powerful I guess.

  10. I hope that my contact with children is as respectful and considerate as it is with adults … but I realise that I do probably touch children more (even in Sweden where hand-shaking, quick hugs and even hug+airkiss are common between adults)
    I would like to add that I think many children do initiate more, and closer, physical contact that adults do … The situation mentioned with a grandmother collecting her gchild from nursery and ruffling the hair of another child hit home to me as I often find, when picking up my own child from preschool, that another child seeks physical contact with me. REaching up their arms to be picked up (I’m sure the staff sometimes wonder why I am chatting to my child, sitting alongside them, with somebody else’s child sitting on my knee!) or leaning into me in an attention-seeking way … in which situation I might well hair-ruffle.
    Surely it’a about reading the body language and responding to it? There are a range of ways in which a large number of parents make physical contact with their own children and it is not that strange if the children seek out the less intimate forms of this from other adults that they feel comfortable with.
    I think the children at Joe’s preschool are thinking “Joe’s mum is here” “I want my Mum to come” “I want a little attention too”
    I realise the key to this is respect, and reading the child’s body language, but if the child is seeking out attention from an adult who is slightly familiar to them and in a known safe familiar setting, is the hair-ruffle really so bad?

    1. Helen, you are so thoughtful and kind-hearted. I don’t think the ruffling is so bad. I honestly worry far more about the children who want to be picked up and hugged by adults they might know, but aren’t intimately acquainted with… I believe this stems from some boundary “confusion” that can be caused by adults or older children not respecting their personal boundaries. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but children this “open” can be open to dangerous contact with others. This is why it is so important to give children clear boundaries and demand respect for theirs as much as possible.

    2. I’ve noticed this also. Children who see me a few times seem to feel safe and do interact with me. The child initiates this and I do ruffle their hair or ask them questions, depending on how old they are. I see this mostly in older toddlers to teens. I look like a Grandmother and children generally feel safe with their Grandmas so it is a natural occurrence. Some even run up and hug me!
      When I am around parents who try to insist their child – even my own Grands – give me a hug hello or goodbye, I always respect the child’s right to say ‘no’ and I explain to the parents, their child has the right to refuse any unwanted physical contact.

  11. My family and I just returned from a trip to Mexico, and while we were there I noticed many, many times strangers commenting on and touching our 5 year old son. I was actually impressed with the sweet sign of affection from (mostly older) women. My son didn’t mind, and it made me realize that culturally we are more protective of our children’s personal space than, say, the Mexican culture. I would absolutely object if my son was uncomfortable, but I left Mexico feeling like the “village” it takes to raise a child knows no geographical boundaries. A grandmothers soft hand caressing my sons cheek accompanied by the comment “que lindo” filled me and my family with a sense of love and community, not dread.

    1. Good point about cultural differences, Briana. And I think that your boy being older helped him to feel more in control and able to enjoy the affection.

  12. A clerk at the supermarket reached over and touched my year old daughter’s cheek tonight. I detest when it happens but I can’t seem to interrupt people before they touch my daughter. I am afraid of insulting people, hurting feelings, embarrassing them, et cetera. Would love some advice on how to handle this.
    I am also quite concerned about seeing family over the holidays since family seems to think they have a “right” to hold your child, touch them, et cetera. I can tell my daughter does not like it and I wish people respected her boundaries. I would like to wait until she indicates that she is okay being touched. Obviously I need to set the boundary for her but I fear I am failing her. Part of the problem is that these circumstances arise before I am really aware and I am caught off guard. Any further thoughts on HOW to do this are welcome.

    1. This might sound harsh but you really have to think: are you more concerned about hurting the feelings of adults who will get over it, or about adults hurting the feelings of your child?

      Asking people very assertive questions is a great way.
      “Why are you touching my child?” said firmly, but not angrily will make any person think twice.
      They may respond will “She likes it” to which you can reply “You didn’t ask her if it was acceptable. Don’t touch another person without asking.”

      1. Katherine White says:

        honestly, I think that’s a bit hostile for what is for most people (including children) an innocuous interaction.

        Touch is important for people, connection is valuable. If your child really doesn’t like it, fine, intervene, but if this can just be a pleasant interaction with another person in the world, don’t let your idiosyncrasies get in the way.

        I think the lack of connection in our society is a shame/loss, not something to be protected so vehemently.

        I am not in favor of hugging/touching someone who doesn’t like it, but you don’t have to create problems where there isn’t one.

        1. When you were a child were you always comfortable telling an adult “no?” Children look to their parents for cues for their behavior. If the parents do not say anything, they will usually assume that it is okay to be touched in spite of their own feelings on the matter. A 1 year old might be able to show discomfort or he/she might not. An introvert might be uncomfortable but not show it. Social convention says that we are not to interrupt the adult showing affection because the intentions are assumed to be innocuous, so the parent does nothing. It is disrespectful to touch another without his/her permission, period. It is against the law to touch an adult (it is assault) but not so for a child. Why should a parent sit back and watch a child be disrespected like that? You do not know if someone likes/dislikes being touched unless you ask. Touching then figuring out the child does not like it is reckless and abusive. This is not about connection, it is about the right to say who touches you, no matter what age you are. What is lacking even more in this society is respect for our bodies. Children and adults are abused in our society because there is a general lack of respect for the boundaries of others as well as poor respect for their own bodies. I have worked with too many children who have been abused by family members because the child did not know that he/she could say “no” to being touched by an adult.

          1. This is so true. I have a hard time with telling people not to touch my children at the grocery store, etc. as well, and am trying to be more assertive for their sake. Your comment reminds me of interactions with a relative when I was younger. They liked to give ‘taps’ – essentially fake spanks on my bottom for birthdays (one for every year, what a custom…) I really, really did not appreciate it. And I was so introverted as a child, it took me until middle school to speak up to my mom and get her to talk to the relative about it. They of course thought it was just a sign of affection and were utterly confused as to why I had a problem with it. They did end up stopping, but I wish my mom had read my body language and stepped in for me. Because it can be really hard for a child to say no. Absolutely. Especially if they are more shy/introverted. Thank you for this comment, it reminds me to be more in tune with my child’s personal space and assert their boundaries for them when needed because not everyone feels comfortable enough to say no.

  13. This all rings so true for me at the moment. My son is the first grandchild and ever since he has been born his grandmother, my MIL has smothered him with affection. For example when I or anyone is holding him she grabs his feet and kisses them or sucks his toes or when he was a baby and he’s crying because he needs a sleep, I’d try and take him away and she would physically stop me and smoother him with kisses to say goodbye. She frequently grabs his face and plants big kisses on it whilst he squirms to get away. Seriously the list of I feel her inappropriate touching goes on. However now at 18 months he refuses to go to her. He screams if she tries to take him from me and the other day physically shook his head. He grabs onto me so tightly for protection and safety. My partner (her son) has told her on numerous occasions that she needs to calm her affection down because our son doesn’t like it. Repeating it again this weekend when she replied in a tone of great disrespect not only to my son, but also her own son “I don’t care”.
    I am glad that my son shows her that he doesn’t like it,,, but she just doesn’t get it and carries on. She seriously does not understand why he wont go to her. She and I have never seen I to I as in the past and to this day I frequently have to barriers up to protect myself against her well intentions overbearing actions which she ignores anyway and carries on. I want to say something, but if she will not even listen to her own son she’s not going to take any notice of what I say.

    I was wondering Janet if you have any advice for me in protecting my son in this situation.

    1. I have the exact same MIL. She is very offended when we tell her what to do or not to do. She often picks up our son and says things like “Give Nanny kiss.” And if our son (who is only 14 months) does not, she then says “You’ll make Nanny cry if you don’t give me a kiss.” Our son tries to squirm away, but she ignores it and continues with the forced kisses. I am at a complete loss. I do not know what to say because I know from past experience that she will not listen to me or my husband. I get the feeling that when we tell her not to do something, that she thinks we are trying to keep the baby away from her or prevent her from doing the grandmotherly things she wants to do. Last week she was so overbearing that our son took her by the finger over to the door and waved her goodbye. He was done with her. She just cannot see that her actions are preventing what could be a wonderful relationship and bond with her grandson.

      1. Oh, dear, that sounds very discouraging. Unfortunately, your MIL is the one who will lose out on a potentially wonderful relationship due to her insensitivity.

      2. As a therapist, I would suggest sitting down with your MIL & partner (without Grandchild around) and telling her in a very compassionate way how you feel and how you see your child feeling. I would acknowledge her needs for affection, attention, love and still insist on some boundaries that you specifically outline to her. Such as – We want you to ask Junior for hugs & kisses. when he says no, we want you to respect that…. and so on, using ‘I’ or ‘We’ statements and avoid saying ‘don’t do such and such’.
        Then get her agreement if possible. If she refuses, you might want to be prepared to tell her visits will be cut back &/or give her a book/article to read about respecting children’s boundaries. Let her think about it for a few weeks of no visits and she will probably call asking to visit. You can then ask for her agreement and see how it goes from there.
        Putting up with or rewarding dysfunctional behavior from family members only allows the uncomfortable behavior to persist.
        Everyone benefits from honesty presented in a loving caring way.

  14. Thanks for posting. I feel bad that I didn’t do very well sticking up for my son as a baby when everyone wanted to touch him. I find it very difficult to tell people (friends, family, and strangers alike) not to touch my child until he is ready for it. Now that my son is 17 months he does better at letting people know that he doesn’t want to be held by them yet, but it’s still a challenge. I am better at telling people now too, but it helps when my son backs away. I can say “I think he’s not ready to be touched/tickled/held by you yet. Maybe after he knows you a little better.”

  15. Dear Janet,

    Thank you very much for your website. I find it very instructive and the things you say and show us (I love the videos) really seem to make sense. Unfortunately, there is only a Piklerplaygroup (it is quite similar to RIE, based on the ideas of Gerber’s teacher Emmi Pikler) at 2 hours travel, so I can’t go there with my baby. But your blogs help me a lot. My daughter is 4 months and I try to give her free playtime as much as possible, although she mostly starts making unhappy noises after 5 minutes. I only started this ‘method’ consciously a week ago, so I hope she plays longer once she’s used to it.
    I warn my daughter before picking her up. How can I know picking up is what she wants? Of she is crying she doesn’t make eyecontact, and if she does it might only mean she wants me to see her or make contact. I find it hard to ‘read’ my baby. Also, what can I do if she cries when I change or dress her? I ask for her help and hold her if she’s upset, but sometimes this doesn’t calm her and the only thing that helps is getting over with it. I try to stay calm and gentle, obviously, but I still feel like I’m not respecting her feelings enough.

  16. Hi to all who question what to say to strangers / family. The two things I found helpful was, when my son was younger (until about 1 year old), to warn them that he might cry if they touched him before he showed signs of intense interest in him. Usually no one wants to make a baby cry, and “might” is a possibility, so not even strictly a lie…
    Now that he’s about 2, I tell “new” people or acquaintances that he has a “cat personality” with new people, i.e. that he needs to to be the one to initiate contact, and until then is best left to observe them, rather than people rushing up to him. Often this works, and is less confrontative than talking about respect towards children first thing. Then, when they can observe our respectful interaction with him, the conversation is often started in a much easier, open way.

  17. This post makes me feel greatful I wore my son in a sling when he was younger that way he was not so redily available to strangers touches. Now that he is 4 I am working on letting him know he doesn’t have to have any kind of unwanted contact with anyone be it me & dad, grandparents and especially strangers who are drawn to his thick curly hair

  18. I don’t know that people fell more comfortable touching a child the younger they are. I think it is more we have a built in yearning to do so. And the younger the child the stronger the impulse is. It’s evolutionary. Children are designed to make you want to care for them, hold them, protect them. Knowing this I try to be understanding of the impulses strangers have to touch my daughter while also trying to remind them to be respectful of her as she does get stranger anxiety and while she dotes on attention from anyone touch really throws her off.

    1. It might be the stranger’s or family member’s needs for affection, touch, love that are guiding people to ‘love-up’ babies. These needy people also think the child will not reject them – i.e. has no power to reject them. In this case it’s a self esteem issue in the adult, and you need to discern which it is. Your child’s reactions will tell you, and it’s your responsibility to protect your child – to meet her/his needs first, rather than another adult’s needs.

  19. My grandson (he is two) says “go away” to anyone he doesn’t want in his face. It is not very kind, but if they can understand what he says it usually throws them off!

  20. Lovely article. I hope our world can learn this lesson and extend it to the tiniest of humans – the unborn.

    1. Joy-Mari Cloete says:

      Amen to that.

  21. My almost 4 yr old son has been anti touchy-feely literally since birth. He couldn’t even stand to breastfeed and bottle feeding had to be done with him facing completely away from me. It doesn’t bother him at all to loudly say DON’T TOUCH ME to people, strangers or otherwise. I am adamently against tickling or forcing goodbye hugs/kisses etc, and I don’t mind explaining to family that he doesn’t like much physical affection at all. We try to ASK and wait for his response and accept it unemotionally. I have an older son who is in the millitary and he and my 4 yr old are extremely close, he loves to roughhouse and snuggle on and tickle on the 4 yr old and the 4 yr old *will* let him but has major meltdowns shortly after, I think he’s so happy to see big brother on rare occasions that he doesn’t want to protest, so I pulled oldest son aside and tried to make him understand this. It’s an ongoing process that is for sure 🙂 Love reading everyone’s ways of handling this!

  22. I completely agree. I always ask my nephew if I can give him a cuddle. My niece on the other hand jumps straight in. At my wedding, my niece, nephew and stepdaughter were in the bridal party. People asked often if my nephew was ok because he was often off on his own. He was fine, he just isn’t fond of people in general. Making your children aware that they have a choice and it’s their body to set boundaries on/with is a big thing, given society’s views on it.

  23. Love is respectful and never forced. It is how I approach all children. It is a pity it is not how everyone approaches children. This is how we raised our kids, not forcing them to be affectionate with anyone and giving them time to get used to people and situations, to decide if they felt safe enough to allow touching, hugging etc.
    I always greet my baby grandson and talk to him and hold out my hands to him and wait for him to respond before picking him up and giving him time to re-acquaint before playing with him (even when it has only been a few days since he saw me last). It’s why when he was tiny and unable to respond for himself, I always asked his mum if it was ok to touch him or pick him up – respect for both mother and baby.
    When I meet a child of any age I try to get to his or her height to greet them and to allow them time and space. Sometimes children want contact sometimes they don’t. How a child engages is different in every situation, with each child, the child’s feeling on the day and in each stage of development.

  24. Although I fully agree when a child protests and when mothers read their children and know they do not like to be touched. I sense that some mothers are protesting out of sheer jealousy that “someone is touching my baby”.
    Typically if they are approached gently during a playful moment kids accept it fine and welcome touch. Especially when they touch you not the other way around. Babies love to grab my finger when it is offered from afar for example. They hate being pounced upon or surprised by a touch or tickle. Sounds like common sense to me. I also hate being pounced or touched by surprise but otherwise am a very touchy feely person (male).

  25. Thanks for another great post! This is so true, why should children not be given the same respect as adults?
    I have always talked to my daughter, since she was a baby. I give her respect. She had her preschool vaccinations today, and I made sure the nurse talked to her first (not to me!) and explained what was about to happen, and then I asked her if it was ok to go ahead. She was calm throughout it and didn’t get upset. I believe this was due to the fact that she was given respect and choice over her own experience and felt in control. Talk talk talk! X

    1. I love this. Adults never talk to kids when they are vaccinating them! Makes it all the more traumatic.

  26. Timely post for me, too. This past week two “new” people asked to hold my 9mo son. One is someone I know but he had never met; the other was a stranger to both of us who we had met at a good friend’s home. In both cases I felt a little bit guilty about letting them hold him; I realize now I definitely need to give him the option and time to decide and indicate whether he would like to be held by someone else.

  27. My son defended himself at two and a half by scratching one of his grandparents who swooped in for a kiss after he had indicated that he didn’t want to give a kiss goodbye. As we drove away, we remained him that scratching wasn’t okay, whole acknowledging that neither was her ignoring his wishes.

    The next time we got together I reminded him that if he didn’t want to be touched, hugged, kissed, or tickled, he needed to use his words and tell her that. And then I looked at her and said, “he’ll tell you, but you need to listen.” She was taken aback, but we haven’t had a repeat incident since.

  28. I was at Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens with my wife today. We were just leaving and a 61 year old man came up to handle my child’s toes in his stroller. Creepy. It gets worse. After I pulled some pants out for him to wear the man unbuckles him from the stroller saying “I know the drill,” let me help, picking him up. NOT OKAY. I almost drilled him. But, I like my freedom, so I touched his hand and said I had this one. He was still reluctant to give him back.

    His name is Patrick he’s a regular at Huntington and likes to hang out with his sister, probably because he’s socially inept. Dude next time I am going to snatch my kid back and show him how to throw a punch. Arrest me, fine. But if I have to fear for my liberty so another person can’t take liberties with my own son, then so-beit. When good people can’t stand up for themselves for fear of being sued, or jailed that’s hell on earth. It’s my kid, don’t tread.

  29. Mia-Carla Maclure says:

    Our daughter will be 3 in August, and we’re very proud of her! We have always respected her, and shown that respect to others. While reading the post, I couldn’t help but remember last Halloween. My friend and I took our daughters to a popular restaurant. The greeter was an older lady. Seeing my daughters pumpkin hair bows, she touched her hair and said “I like your hair bows”. To which my 26 month old daughter said, “don’t touch my hair bows!” The lady looked at me expecting me to say something to Lilly. I just looked at the lady and calmly told her that my daughter has every right to say don’t touch me – to anyone who touches her. She huffed and walked away. What followed was a very deep conversation with my friend about why we feel that way. Just because they’re young, doesn’t give anyone the right to touch them without some sort of permission….be it a verbal request or some sort of non-verbal cue…..

  30. This is so interesting that so many people have had issues with strangers touching their children. I rarely experience this even when I got loads of compliments about how cute my little girl is. For the first year and a half, if we were out, she was always in a carrier – and I personally give off a don’t touch me vibe.

  31. Reminds me of this article

    “When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them,”

  32. Tanya Seebach says:

    This is such a great reminder. I try to be mindful of this with the children I care for but it’s easy to forget. I’ve been a nanny for the same two families for over four years now so am very close to all the children (2 preschoolers, a 2-year-old, and a 10-month-old) but I try to remember to ask before picking up or ask for a hug and to respect them when they say no. I agree with Chris who said that children often don’t feel comfortable saying “no” to adults or that they are allowed to..especially very young children. They need their parents to model it for them and children need to hear the very empowering message that they are in charge of their bodies…always..and only them. What an important lesson and as I said, one I need to keep learning and following in my own life and work. Great article, Janet. Thanks!

  33. I have been uncertain how to address this with my child’s father. My son is 20 months old, and sees his father weekday mornings only. We live separately. My son almost always turns his face away as his papa immediately tries to kiss him. I know his dad wants to show affection and connect, but this does not work. Any ideas?

  34. I find this article tremendously sad. Have we really become a society where an innocent pat by a grandmother on a child’s head can be seen as a violation of a child’s rights? Where tickling a baby’s toes at church is disrespectful? Of course there is a need to teach children to be aware of unsafe touching, but the risk here is children becoming disconnected from their families and communities, and adults becoming afraid to meaningfully engage with them.

    1. I agree that this is really sad. Grandparent aged people come from a time when it was OK to connect with others but now we have become so disconnected from each other we are offended when someone ruffles our child’s hair?! This isn’t a matter of absolute right or wrong, in many other cultures people are much more affectionate to both adults and children and they turn out just fine, usually feeling more of a sense of belonging to their community than in America.

      1. So, Madeline and Moffie, are you saying that this little boy should not have reacted the way he did? Should he be toughened up? Being sensitive and respectful toward children IS connecting. Doing what we want with children because we feel like it is a “one-way” type of connection and rather selfish. Why not take a moment to consider the other person, so the connection can be mutually beneficial?

        1. I agree, isn’t it better to connect by getting to know a child and their family on a personal level first rather than just reaching out for a fondle that might cause upset – you don’t know if that child has autism, anxiety, has suffered abuse in the past or any other issue that might make it inappropriate. If you want to touch a child, either get to know them, or ASK the parents if it is ok.

  35. This article really hit home as I was always forced as a kid to hug and kiss my dad and be tickled by him because that’s how he shows love even though I have always HATED it to such an extent that I would start crying even as a teen but they just didn’t care, I told them time and again that I can’t stand it and it makes me feel uncomfortable but no one ever listened and kept doing it. Today I can’t stand to be touched or hugged by adults even if it is just an innocent greeting at church and I blame my parents for that. I have a daughter now and while reading the article I thought of all the times she would start crying when my dad tries to take her but he would still force her to go to him because her crying is funny to them and I realised I need to start protecting her even if it is going to start a fight. Thank you this article opened my eyes and I’m definitely going to share it.

  36. This situation is just one of many as shown by the many comments left here. While I agree with many points made, I also believe that interacting with unfamiliar individuals is part of life. That first day of kindergarten will be filled with strangers and parents aren’t there to support or guide children how to react. It is up to us as parents to teach them how to interact.

  37. I am so shocked reading this article and the comments that follow it. Seriously do you all not have better things to think/worry about than an old lady rustling your child’s hair. I agree no-one likes over familiarity and I have always just responded to this with a casual comment that me/or my child are not especially tactile and this has always done the trick. Do we really need lengthy articles and over analysis on this. If someone does something to you or your child that they (or you) don’t like just ask politely for them not to do it – end of story. It is important that children learn how to deal with these situations. I agree with the comments about how sad our societies must be when we can’t show affection towards another human being. I do sympathize with those people who have a child with Aspergers/autism as obviously unwanted touch can be a major issue but otherwise just get a life. If YOU make a big deal of it then so will your children. No wonder western societies are becoming so messed up.

    1. Comadrona Smith says:

      Ruffling the hair, tickling, sucking toes (OMG – do people actually do that?), circumcision – are all steps along a continuum. It amounts to people needing to learn that even the pre-verbal young have a right to bodily integrity, and need to consent! If you allow people to touch your baby with impunity, it does potentially set up a lifetime of not being able to say no. Sure, hair ruffling etc. might not be harmful per se, but we really need to look and listen when babies tell us what they like and don’t like. I never touch babies – in fact, I often refuse when mothers offer me a cuddle until I have talked to the baby and tried to find out if it is acceptable for me to touch her/him. And if I do get a cuddle, and the babies are at all unhappy, back to the mum they go! Babes are usually very willing to engage with strangers from the safety of their mum’s lap – so why do we need to violate that? Gratuitous touching is purely for the adult’s gratification, no the infant’s! and to those who think that the world needs more hugs, yes it does – but only if both huggers consent!

  38. I understand the emotions behind this article and truly feel like your heart is in the right place but this is just entirely ridiculous.

    Our society has become so hands-off, stand-off-ish and so absorbed with the “rights” of our children when in fact, the world could use a few more hugs, a couple more atta-boys and pats on the head. Let’s not forget that billions of children have survived the centuries being touched and coddled and have grown up into productive members of society.

    Have you never once thought about the poor woman who is barren, struggling and praying for a child to hold of her own? Perhaps patting your child on the head comforts her heart and provides a sweet reprise from the constant nagging in her heart for a child of her own?

    I am a mother myself and there is not a day I ever regret holding my child too much or ever stop strangers from interacting with him. Perhaps he is learning valuable social skills to one day verbalize his desires for space. Who knows? But he will develop just fine along the way and I will never discourage the outpouring of affection from strangers for him.

    1. Comadrona Smith says:

      I would ask you whether a adult stranger’s “need” to be gratified by touching your child trumps your child’s bodily integrity. Interacting at a safe distance is perfectly fine – but don’t force intimacy with strangers, unless you are happy to undergo that sort of intimacy with strangers yourself?

  39. It surprises me that so many people do not consider the personal space of babies and young children. Even pregnant women people seem to be happy to reach out and touch our bumps.

    My son’s start at school was compromised I think because so many of the older kids would pinch his cheeks and ruffle his hair and even pick him up and he hated it.

    Outside of school I’ve always spoken to my children-even when they were small babies-and the communication was two way although it took me longer to understand what they are saying. I treated them as individual people and this was normal to them so when the inappropriate invasion of personal space happened at school he was surprised and was afraid of getting into trouble at school so withdrew into himself. This impacted on making friends.

    I hope your article makes more people realise that babies are young people with the same feelings and rights that we have and deserve the same respect.

  40. Oops! My previous comment has an error and should read “strangers even feel that it is ok to touch the bump when you’re pregnant. I found this so invasive.”

  41. Mom of Wrestler says:

    I’ve had the opposite problem: My little guy is too affectionate with everyone. He tries to wrestle neighbors and wants to crawl across the lap of anyone that would let him during church. I’m trying to teach him stranger danger and appropriate touching. It’s been tough. We do a wrestling match nearly every morning hoping to get some of his “needs to be touched and wrestled and hugged constantly” time filled up so he doesn’t flop himself on the story-time lady.

    1. Interesting… The wrestling match might be contributing to the issue in the sense that if he is being overpowered, his boundaries are being broken. It can then be more difficult to perceive the boundaries of others. We are our children’s most influential teachers.

  42. Comadrona Smith says:

    There is a very sound evolutionary reason for not touching babies and young children who are not ours. In the millenia before antibiotics, any infection acquired form other people could spell a death sentence. New mums are often quite reluctant to take the newborn out for a few weeks, with good reason. The baby’s immune system is almost non-existent and needs to be primed with mother’s flora (via vaginal birth) and built up with mother’s immune properties acquired from breast milk. As children get older, they become less vulnerable but it is a gradual process – so please let us respect it!

  43. As a former preschool teacher, former Kindermusik educator, birth doula, and lover of small people in general, I really appreciate the main idea here. It’s so easy, and so respectful, to ask small people before picking them up by just holding out my arms and saying the words “can I hold you?” or “can I see you?” Children let me know if they are o.k. with me holding them with their body and facial language, and we become friends much faster if they feel safe with me because I respected their boundaries. If they leaned away from me or frowned a little, I try to always give them the words that I see on their little faces: “No, don’t pick me up? That’s just fine, I won’t, don’t worry…” and move on to some other kind of chatting or interacting. My hope is always to help them find their voices and feel respected.

  44. I love that my ten month old has the perfect “back up and nobody gets hurt” look. She will be smiling at someone, they’ll get too close. She’ll give then the stink eye. They’ll back up and she will smile again. I love watching her stick up for herself, and speaking up in her behalf if people don’t listen.

  45. I love baby feet and sausage legs. They make me gush. But I would never touch a baby or child without asking the child or parent first. And I have asked, it is the respectful thing to do.

  46. Jennifer Barnes says:

    When my oldest son was just a baby, he was so striking, that many people commented, and came up to touch him unauthorized. Shopping in the grocery store was always frustrating for me, as I would turn or bend to reach something for 2 seconds, and there would already be someone touching my son! on the hands, face, head…etc… I wanted to put a sign on his stroller saying “please don’t touch”. My husband said it was rude, and I said, I don’t care if I offend strangers that way. I regret not putting up that sign, as one such incident gave my son a horrible, miserable contagious rash all around his neck!

  47. The story at the beginning reminds me of a story my mother often told about me when I was about two years old. In church, a woman decided to pat me on my cute little head and was very surprised when I turned around, glared at her, and said, “You, stop that, you!” She was doubly surprised because she thought I wasn’t talking yet. I personally have always had the policy that I don’t touch children unless I have asked the child if it is ok. If my nephew doesn’t want a hug from auntie, then I don’t force him to give me a hug. I definitely believe that children have the right to their personal boundaries, and adults should respect that.

  48. Since starting with the RIE philosophies about a year ago, my now 3 year old is now very good about letting me know when she doesn’t want to be touched. She was the flower girl in a wedding in February and half the ceremony was Persian. The Persian families were very touchy! But my daughter stuck close to me and would say “I don’t want you to touch me” when they would reach out to touch her. They look almost amused rather than offended to hear her stick up for herself. People also tried to grab her from my arms or the brides arms to dance with her! Thankfully the bride, who is a very dear friend, knows that we treat her with respect and would not allow it. Aside from all this, the one thing I couldn’t control that was bothering her was eveyone saying “you are so beautiful!” Or “what a cute little girl you are!” Or even “I can’t believe what a great job you did!!” I don’t think it was necessarily what they were saying but how they were saying it, with that “awwwwwwwww” sound in their voices. And I could tell it was bothering her so I said to her “you look upset when people tell you you did a great job today. I know you don’t these people but they’re friends of (our friends) and they want you to know you did a great job.” Her response? “Well, I don’t want to hear it from them!” I don’t think it’s that they were talking to her, because she’s very social when people are respectful, but they were overpraising her, I think that’s what was bothering her. How do I approach that? Do I? I feel like I can’t say “please don’t praise my child” Or can I?

  49. This reminds me of a troubling incident at our church during photos with Santa. The “Santa” attends our church but we don’t know him. Our 5 year old son was okay about sitting on his lap. Santa tickled our son a few times without asking his permission and I could tell our son wasn’t completely comfortable and neither was I. It happened so fast and now months later it still bothers me. I don’t feel comfortable about my son sitting on Santa’s lap ever again in the future. The situation just felt creepy and wrong.

  50. I feel very strongly about this but I am struggling to find ways to teach my children these lessons while living in an asian country where people think it’s ok to get right into the personal space of children – whether it’s jumping into photos with them, asking for high fives every day, squeezing their cheeks as they go past, etc.

    Rather than fight all the battles for them, what are some things I can say or do with my 1 year old and 3 year old to help them understand that they have a right to say no? It’s confusing because if people (especially complete strangers) were behaving this way in a western country it would not be normal or ok, but in asia it is part of the culture and people are surprised by strong negative reactions (my 3yo son will shout NO at them, but this makes them laugh and think he’s playing with them)…

    Any advice on what we can do at home or in the moment much appreciated!

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