Affection, Autonomy and the Needs of Teenagers

My older son used to caress my upper arm absent-mindedly when I nursed him, and later when I’d read his bedtime story. Today, when I hug him, it’s like trying to hug a cigar store Indian or the Tin Man.

Until a year ago, my younger son wanted me at his side each night as he fell asleep. Now that he’s almost 13, he does an evasive ninja move when I try to show him affection.

What happened? They turned into teenagers is what happened. Teenaged people who are comprised of odors and elbows and anxiety.

Despite their aversion to their parents, it is clear that they — and every teenager — still need physical touch. So where do they get it?

The short answer is, teenagers mostly get their physical needs met by one another. But it’s much more complicated than that.

7th graders checking out a patch of snow on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite

A few weeks ago, I chaperoned my younger son’s class trip to Yosemite. Four days and three nights in one of the most beautiful places on earth, along with sixty 7th graders. They mostly ignored me (including when I was ask-tell-yelling at them) and I got to observe them interact.

Kids have two opposing desires: physical autonomy and physical comfort. As they begin to get physical autonomy from their parents, they also seek to get physical comfort elsewhere. They wrestle, they braid hair, they push and shove and hug and flick and whisper, all in an effort to get the physical touch they desperately want and need.

Boys are given more physical autonomy from their parents earlier in life. For example, my kids take the bus and train by themselves, walk in our Oakland neighborhood at dusk or later, and have debit cards to access their allowance. Parents of girls I know are more reluctant to give their daughters the same range before high school. At the same time, boys are getting weaned from affection much earlier, usually for “privacy” or to develop stoicism so necessary to masculinity.

Girls get more physical attention than boys. I see middle school girls who still hold their mother’s and one another’s hands. They kiss and hug each other every time they see one another. They sit on one another’s laps, playing with each other’s hair, whispering sweet secrets and trading pieces of clothing.

The boys, eager to get some of that physical touching they need, try to take it. They push and shove and jump on other people’s backs and put each other in headlocks. And it extends to the girls. The boys put their arms around them, push them, steal those magical pieces of clothing, just to get a part of the touch they need.

The idea of consent is non-existent. From a boy’s perspective, why should consent be needed when he can see that the girls trade this touch with ease and without permission? Among the girls, it’s a renewable resource that is passed without permission. From the girls’ perspective, they haven’t been granted the physical autonomy to set boundaries, and so they don’t require consent to be explicit.

I shared my theory — that girls don’t get enough freedom, boys don’t get enough affection, and nobody seems to ask — with a thirteen-year-old girl in my hiking group. She agreed. In fact, she yelled, “Yes! Girls get too many rules, and boys can do whatever but they aren’t allowed to hug or be nice!”

In the week prior to the trip, the science teacher taught puberty education, and there’s a Life Choices curriculum that supposedly gets taught but about which I know nothing. If consent and choice and bodily autonomy and physical needs were discussed at all, there was no evidence of that on this trip. When I suggested to the teachers that the trip could be used as a tie-in for this curriculum, I was met with an eye roll and a polite smile.

This is a missed opportunity. It’s also a reminder that the message of consent and autonomy and the okayness of affection need to be woven throughout the way we teach and raise kids.

I know girl-parents may have legitimate concerns about giving their daughters more freedom. There are creeps out there. On the other hand, when will girls learn to draw boundaries, demand respect, and require consent if we don’t start giving them opportunities to practice early on? When we teach boys to ask and to be okay with hugging and hand-holding they might get them some of the affection they so desperately need, instead of resorting to stealing it.

They — we — work on balancing freedom and love every day. The sooner we teach them how to do that, the better.

I write, parent, arbitrate, not necessarily in that order. Please subscribe to my newsletter:

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