I recently took a poll on my Facebook page asking for input on what to write about. I presented three options, but ultimately the voting was so close I decided I’d write about all three. This is the third of those options. Without further ado….
This isn’t meant as some catchy click-bait title, it’s supposed to be transparent. As per the title of this article what I want is simple- Stop telling your child to hug me. Something which never fails to get on my nerves is the way parents interact with their shy children around others. More specifically what I’m referring to is when a parent badgers their child (shy or otherwise) into showing affection to someone the child is clearly uncomfortable with. Does this scene seem uncommon? Surely no parent would prioritize good manners over their own child’s safety and comfort! You’d be wrong.
Let’s paint the picture. You head over to a friend’s house, perhaps a relative, maybe even a neighbor. While you are sitting on the couch (or waiting in the foyer) you see their young child, let’s say about four years old. What a little cutie patootie! Those chubby cheeks! Those adorable clothes, you just want to hug and squeeze them! So, naturally, you wave at the little tyke. They probably don’t remember you very well, if at all, you’ve only met a handful of times before and too spread out for the kid to really remember your face, plus they’re young. So you’re waving, but wait, they’re not responding. Aww, oh well, maybe they’re nervous or shy? Now your friend comes in and immediately begins reprimanding her-“Don’t be rude! Say hello to Miss ______” she chastises lightly. She turns her focus from the child to you “Really I don’t know why she does this, she’s not normally like this! She’s just being bashful, do you want to hug her? Sweetie go give _________a hug!” and so it continues.
This seems harmless. I can recall numerous instances wherein I’ve seen this take place. Exhibit A: Once back in under grad I came into my dorm lobby after a long day of ignoring professors too see the building’s security guard with her sister and nephew. This particular nephew had adorable round cheeks and an even more adorable pout. I waved hello and he seemed disinterested, his mother chastised him, a child I’d never met, for ignoring me, an adult he’d never met.
Part deux-I walked into my mentor’s office and he mentioned his family was coming to visit. I was ecstatic as I’d not seen his daughter in over a year. When she did come in she was very quiet and went straight to her father’s arms. He embraced her for a few minutes and then directed her towards me. “Go say hi to Miss Alexis!” when she didn’t move the line came again- “Sweetie go say hi!” again she hid. I made no effort to reach out other than trying to look friendly. It should be noted this girl is young, but she can walk and talk, she can see me sitting in the seat opposite her father and she can see me waving towards her, so her decision to not embrace me is one she has come to on her own. Instead of letting her do as she pleased the request to wave to me was made several times over, what’s worse is that it escalated “Go sit in Miss Alexis’ lap! Give her a hug! Say hello!” rang the chorus. Somehow a child who doesn’t want to wave to me is supposed to want to embrace me. Mind you this is a child no more than two and a half years old who I’d not seen in over a year. All of this begs one very clear question in my mind. Why?
Why is it so important your child embrace me? Greet me? Hug me? Kiss me? Is this something born out of a desire for obedience? Or perhaps wanting to make a good impression? Worried I might think your kid is a brat? Maybe you think I won’t be able to hand the rejection, that I’ll grab the nearest letter opener and start hacking at my own throat? Perhaps it’s nothing so serious, maybe you just want your kid to like me, I mean that’s noble right! Maybe you know I am a nice person, maybe you think if your kid just gets over the shyness they will really come to like me! You know, like you do!
None of that matters.
I can easily understand the last sentiment. You know me, you like me, you tell me about your little nephew all the time! You show me pictures and tell me you can’t wait to bring him to the office. So when you finally do and he isn’t enthusiastic it feels like a let down. Maybe if you just tell him to give me a hug he’ll do it, I’ll gush about what a little cutie he is and we can all talk about his sweet disposition and chubby fingers. I mean after all it’s not a big deal right? It’s just one little hug! Just a cheek kiss! Just a hand shake!
None of this matters if the child simply does not want to do it. I want people to understand that their kid does not have to like me. Your kid doesn’t have to want to be around me. Just because YOU like me doesn’t mean your niece has to, and that’s okay. If your kid decides they like me on Tuesdays then that’s cool. If they decide they only want to engage me when we play tea party on weekends that is fine by me! Should they decide they want to run away whenever they see my face then that is fine too (albeit a bit hurtful). You should ask your children why they feel uncomfortable, but don’t invalidate them if they share it with you. Listen to your kids, they may tell you something important. Instead of immediately wagging your finger ask them why they don’t wave back to the mailman or your neighbor Marge. Is it the over-sized beehive she calls a hair-do? Her shrill voice? Maybe the mailman said something not nice last time he was here, maybe he reminds you of the schoolyard bully, maybe his hat is just funny looking and his breath smells like funyuns. Doin this prioritizes their health and safety. If something is wrong then you having a dialogue will make them feel encouraged to share what’s going on. If nothing is wrong they will still feel supported and they will know they can talk to you about whatever is bothering you- a lesson good parent’s want to instill from an early age. It’s important for children to feel heard, to feel as though you truly care about their experiences. What does it do to tell a child they are a ‘big kid’ and then undermine the choices they make?
Make no mistake- this is about corporeality. We are talking about what children are able to do with their own bodies. This isn’t a discussion about a kid who hits their peers, or a kid who blabs all your secrets to the neighbors, this is about kids being able to decide for themselves who they interact with, when they do it and the manner they do it in. Far too often we treat children as property, extensions of ourselves or their parents. We often disregard what they say as non-sense and move them about as deem fit. We eat their food without permission, we talk over them, we take them from our own arms and hand them to others- all things we wouldn’t be so quick to accept if the tables were turned. Why do we disregard children’s voice? Ignore them when they speak? Why don’t we ask them for permission to do things? Often the answer is that we need to maintain control, if we give them too much input they will think they are in charge! What would be the purpose of parents if kids made the rules? It would be complete anarchy! Perhaps,….but also perhaps not. Perhaps if you ask your kid before you change the channel you will be showing them they have complete control over the television, or maybe they will feel respected and like their wants matter to you. If you ask your kid for a hug and they say no maybe they will never hug you again and you will shrivel up and die!!! Or maybe they will feel reassured that you can love someone, but not always want to be affectionate with them. Letting your child know that they don’t have to hug your friends or even their own helps empower them to create healthy boundaries and get in tune with the things they want as opposed to the things others want for them, an important distinction. We treat children as though their bodies are always available to be consumed by others, it’s important to respect their own agency and remind them they do not have to do things they do not want.
When you want to give a child a hug, a kiss, pinch their cheek do not only ask their parents, ask them too. If you say “Oh he’s so cute, can I give him a hug” and the parent agrees make sure you also ask the child if they would like to be touched. We cannot tell kids they are in control of heir own bodies, but constantly undermine their autonomy. We often tell children they are the boss of their body, if they don’t want someone to touch them and the person does anyway then that is bad. We teach them Good touch v Bad Touch and (hopefully) give them lessons about what to do if someone engages with them in a way they do not like or want. All of these are important, but yet in tandem with all these lessons we punish kids for not engaging people WE want them to. Kids have reasons to feel the way they do, no matter those reasons they are entitled to them. When we ignore a child’s desires we treat them like property. We send the message that they do not exist as people independent of us who can decide for themselves, we teach them their movement is constricted by the interests of others. Not only do we disrespect their autonomy and undermine their agency, but we enthusiastically remind them they do not have space that belongs to them. Parents often enter their child’s room without warning or alter the order of a child’s room without communicating why. Even for young children this can be very stressful. Children want to feel like they have their own space that they can control, it is one thing to put your children’s clothes away after you wash them or to clean up a spill they cannot fix, but rearranging their room for no other reason than your own interest can be incredibly stressful. Unfortunately This problem extends all throughout childhood and adolescence. Parent’s often do not react well to the idea they need to ask their child for permission to do something. If you knock before entering your teen’s room they will have time to hide the drugs! Plus you pay the bills! It’s your house! They don’t pay rent! You’re entitled to their space, it’s an important lesson to remind them they are indebted to you and don’t have any rights or privacy, right? What it all comes down to is respect and trust. It is incredibly damaging to tell your child they own nothing and have no rights. When we tell children we can do as we please and they have to endure because we have power and they do not they develop some very unhealthy values concerning authority and power. From a young age let’s empower and encourage children to make healthy choices with their spaces and their bodies. From here we can introduce all sorts of important lessons about privacy, autonomy, consent, and interaction. By listening to what children want and how they feel not only do we become in tune with them, but we help them get in tune with themselves and their own wants. Introspection is an incredibly important skill, fostering it will be incredibly helpful and positive to children throughout their lives.
All in all it’s not too complex- If your kid is uncomfortable pay attention, my ego can survive rejection from a 3 year old. I won’t go crying to my car if they don’t wave back at me. Do not prioritize my feelings over your child’s. When children feel safe they feel empowered and when we respect their right to control their bodies and interactions we make a step towards supporting them as people and not just as children.