It might seem polite to have kids hug others, even family and friends, but here are 3 reasons your child doesn’t have to hug everyone.
At a family gathering, a relative wanted a hug from my then-toddler, but my son was in no mood. I didn’t force him to hug everyone or apologize for his shyness. Instead, I said, “Looks like you don’t want to hug right now. Maybe later?”
“Later,” my toddler agreed. My relative, picking up the hint, requested a high-five instead, which my son much preferred.
In my family, you hug everyone, especially the elders.
We have huge gatherings with aunts, uncles, and cousins galore. Every time anyone walks in, everyone else stands up to hug and kiss the newcomers, sometimes before they’ve even set their purses or coats down.
This wasn’t limited to just hellos either—the same hugging at farewells would happen again.
The multitude of greetings is a sign of respect and manners, especially to the elders. These are the people who keep the family unit cohesive (and usually prepare the food).
Still, considering that this is the norm in my family, I may just be the black sheep about mandatory hugging and kissing.
3 reasons your child doesn’t have to hug everyone
As a first-time mom, I needed to re-frame this tradition in a way my toddler could understand and will even do on his own. For someone who was easily overwhelmed with overstimulation, the last thing he needed was a crowd of people wanting to hug and kiss him.
It’s one thing for me to grow up knowing you greet people because that’s just what we do. It’s another to understand why and feel comfortable doing so. As such, I didn’t expect any of my kids to hug everyone in the room against their will. Here’s why:
1. Forced hugging doesn’t respect your child’s space
Kids—especially little ones—can feel overwhelmed when entering a house full of people. They don’t see some of these folks regularly, too. Adults can adapt to these situations, but kids—not so much.
For children, especially those who feel anxious in large crowds and new settings, forcing hugs and kisses don’t help them better adjust. In fact, it can do the opposite, frightening and overwhelming them with their sudden lack of personal space.
I wanted my kids to know they have a right to personal space even among puckered lips and outstretched arms. They may not be able to avoid the large crowds of people swarming to greet them, but at least they won’t have to hug them against their will.
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2. Forced hugging doesn’t respect your child’s body
Kids should be able to say no—even to adults—as a way to respect their bodies. We warn about inappropriate touching, then force them to hug and kiss when they don’t want to. We send mixed messages of “Just say no” with “Hug this man even though you don’t know him or want to hug him.”
They already feel like they have little say—their bodies should be one of the most important aspects they can make decisions about. I want my kids to know they have absolute control over their bodies.
3. Encourage your child to want to hug everyone
I’m really not anti-hugging. I actually love that my family is the hugging type and enjoy seeing my kids greet everyone. But when I was a kid, I honestly didn’t want to hug everyone. Not only did it feel like an obligation, I also felt like some adults weren’t even that excited to greet me, either.
I wanted my kids to show manners and respect and express genuine interest in those around them. Forcing hugs makes greetings an obligation rather than a genuine joy of seeing others.
How to encourage your child to want to hug
Well, guess what. My kids are older than those toddler years, and now any time they see family members, they rush to greet and hug them with genuine affection. Let’s just say that I didn’t end up raising anti-social kids, after all.
In the meantime, how do you encourage your child to want to hug while respecting his feelings and being respectful to others? Instead of forcing him to give hugs, here’s what you can do:
- Model the behavior. When you want him to say hi to everyone, it’s best to lead by example. With him in tow, try to say hi to everyone so he sees that saying hello is a pleasant experience.
- Hype up the crowd. On your way to a gathering, talk about the people you’ll see. “Remember how your aunt taught you that song about fingers and toes?” or “Grandma will be there—she visited us last week.” This way, he gets excited about the people he’ll see.
- Tell him what to expect. Describe what he might see once he arrives. “Lots of people will be there, and they’ll all come to the door when we walk in.” With descriptions, he’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
- Ask him first. Once he’s finally at the party and people are clamoring to hug him, ask his permission first. “Want to give your cousin a hug?” or “Let’s go say ‘hi’ to your aunt.” Make it known that he can always refuse (instead of making it sound like a command).
- Tell the truth. For the times your child doesn’t feel like hugging or engaging with others, say the truth rather than making up excuses. “Looks like he doesn’t want to give hugs right now. Maybe in a few minutes he’ll be up for it.” Instead of, “Oh, he’s a bit shy…” or “He just woke up from a nap…”
- Offer an alternative. My relative did the next best thing with my son when he extended a high-five rather than a hug. Giving alternatives offers your child a chance to say hello without hugging. Besides high-fives, he can also wave his hand, say “hi,” or see if he’d like to give a hug later.
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Trying to balance family tradition with your child’s feelings can be tricky, but he also shouldn’t be forced to hug everyone. Doing so doesn’t respect his personal space, one we all need and desire. Forced hugs sends mixed messages about consent and how much control he has over his body.
And at the end of the day, he should want to hug everyone, not feel like he has to. You can encourage a genuine desire to greet and respect his family members, without forcing him to hug against his will.
p.s. Check out Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison, all about bodily autonomy and consent:
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