Why I’m not squeezing my grandkids in that bearhug like I used to
My grandkids call me Dede because “grandma” just wasn’t happening. I’m far too cool to be a grandma – and I certainly don’t feel like one. But sometimes, even Dede’s mess up.
A few days ago, I was at a family gathering and was squeezing my 10-year-old grandson in what I thought was a lovely bearhug. A few seconds into the hug, I realized not only was he not returning the hug, but he was wincing and desperately trying to wiggle out of my grasp. He even said, “Dede stop!”
I immediately stopped and let go. I was heartbroken to think my grandson doesn’t love my big bearhugs anymore. But I also know it’s critically important to listen to children when they communicate their boundaries. And giving a big hug that my grandson was squirming to get out of is not what an adult who knows healthy boundaries should have done.
Working with the Erin Levitas Foundation, I’ve learned how important my role is in my grandchildren’s life. I’m a safe adult, trusted to help them navigate the world. I know how vital it is to help children understand they have a say when it comes to their bodies – but even I sometimes get it wrong. After all, how could my grandkids NOT want a big bearhug from their Dede?
Feelings aside, I know that when we show our grandchildren that they have a say in who hugs them and when, we are signaling to them that they are in charge of their body.
Maryland’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault even recommends listening to kids and respecting their boundaries as a way to prevent child sexual abuse. “If a child does not want to hug or kiss a friend or relative, honor that boundary rather than requiring physical affection. Whenever possible, ask for a child’s permission before touching them. If a child seems uncomfortable with a particular adult, find a time afterwards to ask them about their discomfort and talk about what is happening.”
Baltimore’s Center for Hope puts it differently, and says to “teach your child that they are the boss of their body. Respect your child’s decision to protect their body and space. Their body is theirs, so respect their no and teach others they your child is not being rude but establishing their boundaries.”
At the end of the day, I want my grandkids to feel safe more than I want that extra-long hug. And yeah, it’s sad to imagine the grandkids not wanting to hug their Dede anymore – but think of how wonderful it will feel when they know that we “get them” and are supportive of their choices. (For example, here’s a downloadable activity you can use to give grandchildren choices when it comes to saying ‘Hi’ to you.)
As our grandkids grow up, their choices around their bodies and privacy are changing. Recently, our 6-year-old grandson has started shutting the door when it’s time to change into his pajamas. And even though I don’t want a mess all over the bathroom, I respect the wishes of our 3-year-old grandson when asks me for “pribacy” when he goes potty. Because respecting his “pribacy” helps him know that he can ask anyone for it, and they should respect it – even Dede.
Our grandkids are growing up in a much more complicated world than we did. When we were kids, we were totally forced into obligatory hugs. And we all at least had one creepy relative we never quite felt comfortable around. We hugged anyway – we didn’t think we had a choice.
But I remember how those hugs felt – and I want my grandkids to know they have a choice. They don’t have to let anyone touch them. Even if that means fewer bearhugs for Dede.
As grandparents, we can revel in the opportunity to help our grandchildren navigate their identities and self-confidence in today’s fast-paced world. We can use our time with our grandkids to help boost their self-confidence in setting and respecting each other’s boundaries. We can use our experiences in life to be a safe harbor of empathy and understanding for the cherished little ones in our lives. And we can still be the “cool” Dede – the one who listens and takes their needs seriously.
About the author
Debi Howard is the Director of Program Strategy for the Erin Levitas Foundation. She has 6 grandchildren and lives with her husband, Ed in Severna Park, MD.