How to teach new rules to touchy-feely grandparents



December 13, 2019 - 4:28 PM

Hi, Carolyn: We’re traveling to see my in-laws for the holidays with our two young kids (under 5). I am keen on teaching the kids about bodily autonomy and consent, and have tried to model this behavior from the get-go — asking if it’s okay to kiss and hug them, and respecting a “no.”

Their grandparents are all over them when they see them with kissing, tickling, etc., which makes me a bit uncomfortable, and I want to communicate our approach to boundaries before the holiday. When I asked my husband if I could tell them, he got upset and said it sounded like I was criticizing them. Is there a nice way of doing this? — Anonymous


Anonymous: It won’t matter how nicely you say things if people don’t want to hear them, as your husband just proved with his defensiveness. If he’s not in agreement with your philosophy and methods, and if he doesn’t trust the sincerity of your intentions with his parents, then that actually registers on the “wow” scale. So that’s where your focus belongs for now.

I think it’s also important, before you take this on, to understand it’s possible to be wrong about being right.

You are right about body autonomy. The understanding that it’s the root system of agency, consent, boundaries, self-confidence, crime prevention and even (no kidding) democracy is one of the more productive societal “aha” moments I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

But it’s not vitamin C, a consensus good-health no-brainer. Teaching body autonomy explicitly is pretty new, even alien to a lot of well-meaning people — who will not only be incredulous when told they can’t just rain hugs and kisses on their little grandmunchkins, but also possibly insulted by the idea they’re doing something untoward enough to make anyone “uncomfortable.” Even “a bit.” (I do hope we’re near consensus against tickling.)

Plus, different cultures have different touch thresholds.

Plus, touch is life. Pendulums swing.

So any telling of rules is best reserved for people you know to be as open-minded as they are thick-skinned. Which your in-laws may well be, but their son’s reaction says otherwise.

With benevolent fixtures in your children’s lives, as I hope these grandparents are, I urge you to proceed as if you’re speaking a new language. Slow down, act things out, be patient, forgive liberally, restart from the beginning as needed, assume their best intentions — and be humble, always. You may understand something they haven’t encountered yet, but they also have decades of child-rearing experience that produced the man you chose to marry, up against your less-than-half-a-decade so far.

Yes, I know — you’re the expert at your kids just as they were the experts at theirs, and each of you is the greater authority on your own social ecosystem. But perspective will serve you well.

As will teaching your kids to say “no” to unwanted touch. That’s essential; teaching Grandma, optional.

Disclaimer: If you have good cause to feel uncomfortable with your in-laws around your kids, then your only option is to allow limited (or zero) grandparent time, every bit of it supervised. Presumably you would have said so in your letter if there were serious issues, but the phrase “makes me a bit uncomfortable” about behavior around children tells me to spell this out.