Not long ago, I spent the afternoon with a friend who was watching her 9-month-old nephew, “Theo.”
For most of the afternoon, we pushed Theo around in his stroller, let him walk around when he expressed the desire to move, and generally went about our day, but with a small child in tow. I was impressed by the respect and care my friend showed to her nephew.
But at one point, Theo was crawling around on my friend’s bed, minding his own baby business, when my friend decided she wanted to pick him up. She scooped him up, made some “baby noises,” hugged him, then put him back down. Sounds innocent enough. This surely happens all the time to babies around the world. Adults are constantly touching kids. So, what’s the problem?
Here’s the issue: In that moment, Theo didn’t want to be picked up. He didn’t even want to be touched. He made that clear in the way he struggled and softly cried out. He was crawling around and didn’t want to be bothered, and especially didn’t want to be moved and held against his will. But many adults, when they feel like holding a baby, just do it – regardless of the child’s wishes.
In fact, this phenomenon isn’t unique to babies. Children of nearly all ages – but especially younger children – are regularly touched without their consent. Whether it’s an aunt or uncle tousling a child’s hair, a grandparent demanding a hug, or a parent picking up a child on a whim, adults frequently do not respect the bodily autonomy of young people.
But of course, we all know the importance of physical touch. Touch is a crucial part of healthy child development. And certainly there are human relationships – with solid foundations of trust and communication – where spontaneous touching is encouraged.
My point is that often children are touched even when this type of relationship is not in place. Or, even if there is a loving, trusting, touch-filled relationship – the child may not want to be touched at that moment.
So, when is it okay to touch children?
The same rules should apply as with touching adults: only when they consent (limited, of course, by age of consent laws) and when it is otherwise appropriate.
As I noticed while watching my friend’s nephew struggle against being held by a loving relative, children effectively express their desires and wishes even before they can verbally communicate.
It’s usually clear when children want to be held or touched. They often reach out or cry out. But if children don’t express a need – if they are content with their own activities – then adults should, in general, not touch them. We need to trust that kids will express their needs for physical touch when it is appropriate for them.
Whenever possible, adults should ask children for permission to enter kids’ personal space. Just like we should with other adults.
Of course, just like with adults, there are exceptions for imminent health and safety concerns. If a child is about to walk into traffic; if an infant needs their diaper changed; or if a child won’t swallow life-saving medicine, then nonconsensual touching may be appropriate. But in those situations, it should be temporary and only done to the extent necessary.
It’s important that adults respect children’s autonomy and bodily integrity. It’s important that kids learn from a young age that their personal space matters. And it’s important that kids know consent matters.
If there is one takeaway from this post, it is this: In general, don’t touch people who don’t want to be touched, and don’t assume anyone wants to be touched.