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 recent family gathering, my brother-in-law wanted a hug from my 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 brother-in-law requested a high-five instead, which my son much preferred.
In my family, you hug everyone, especially adults. We have huge gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins galore. Every time people walk in, everyone 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 happened again.
Considering that that is the norm in my family, I may just be the black sheep among huggers and kissers. I understand where this multitude of greetings comes from: it’s a sign of respect and manners. Imagine hosting a party and your guest gives you a head nod and a “‘Sup?” on their way to the drinks. Besides manners, it’s important show respect to the elders. These are the people who keep the family unit cohesive (and prepare the food). I get that.
3 reasons your child doesn’t have to hug everyone
I need to re-frame this tradition in a way my toddler can understand and will even do on his own. 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 don’t expect my toddler to hug everyone in the room against his will. Here’s why:
1. Forced hugging doesn’t respect his space
Kids—especially the 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. Kids—not so much.
For children, especially those who feel easily anxious in large crowds and new settings, forcing hugs and kisses don’t help them better adjust. In fact, it can do the opposite: Frighten and overwhelm them and their sudden lack of personal space.
I want my son to know he has a right to personal space even among puckered lips and outstretched arms. We may not be able to avoid the large crowds of people swarming to greet us, but at least he won’t have to hug them against his will.
2. Forced hugging doesn’t respect his body
Kids should be able to say say no—even to adults—as a way to respect their bodies. Parents 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.”
Children already feel like they have little say in our adult world—their bodies should one of the most important aspects of their lives they can make decisions about. I want my toddler to know he has absolute jurisdiction over his body.
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 toddler 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.
I want my toddler to show manners and respect and express genuine interest in those around him. Forcing hugs makes greetings an obligation rather than a genuine joy of seeing others.
How to encourage your child to want to hug
So, instead of forcing him to give hugs, we:
- Model proper behavior. When you want your kid to say hi to everyone, it’s best to lead by example. Usually with my toddler in tow, I try to say hi to everyone so he sees that saying hello is a pleasant experience.
- Hype up the crowd. On our way to a party, we talk about the people we’ll see. “Remember how your aunt taught you that song about fingers and toes?” or “Grandma will be there; she visited us last week and said we’ll see her soon?” This way, he gets excited about the people he’ll see.
- Tell him what to expect. We also describe the party: “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, I ask his permission first. For instance, I’ll say, “Want to give your cousin a hug?” or “Let’s go say ‘hi’ to your aunt.” The tone is always one where he can refuse rather than one of forced commands.
- Tell the truth. Usually he likes hugging people, but for the times he doesn’t, I say the truth rather than making up excuses. For instance, I’ll say, “Looks like he doesn’t want to give hugs right now. Maybe in a few minutes he’ll be up for it.”
- Offer an alternative. My brother-in-law extended a high-five of a hug. Giving alternatives offers my toddler a chance to say hello without full-on hugging someone. Besides high-fives, we suggest waving his hand, saying “hi” or giving hugs later.
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I want to mix expectations and manners with respecting my toddler’s space and decisions. I would hate for my family to feel disrespected because I don’t force him to greet everyone. But I also wouldn’t want to disregard my toddler’s feelings. Instead, I’d like him to grow up willingly giving hugs—or high-fives—all on his own.
p.s. Check out Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison, all about bodily autonomy and consent:
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Does your family have expectations that kids should hug everyone? Have you run into problems where your kids would rather not hug and greet others?