“Go on, give her a big hug”, I told the reluctant little boy — my 3.5 year old son — clinging to me.
I pried off his arms that were wrapped tightly around my legs and gently pushed him towards my friend (who he was meeting for the first time). It was when I felt his whole body stiffen in silent protest that it crossed my mind: “he really doesn’t want to hug her.”
I put myself in his shoes then. I would hate it if someone forced me to get physically close to someone when I was uncomfortable doing so. So why expect any different from my child? Or from any child for that matter?
It’s one thing to teach our kids good manners and politeness, but the message we give our children when we force them to hug another adult is actually quite alarming.
It’s that they have no ownership of their bodies. We are telling our kids to go against their instinct and get physically close to someone they don’t want to.
A CNN article quotes Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention as saying:
“When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend’s feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them.
“This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’ “
Lessons for parents in politeness and safety
I have now stopped asking my boys to give hugs to others, unless of course it is initiated by them, on their own.
There are only a few people they will instinctively give hugs to other than my husband and I — their cousins, one or two aunties and uncles, a few of their and my good friends, and their grandparents. That’s it.
And having realised this, I feel terrible about all the other people I have asked them to hug in the past, thinking I was teaching them good manners.
I now realise that while my children should treat all people with respect, this does not need to involve pleasing others through physical affection, even in the form of a sweet hug.
It goes beyond letting my kids know that they are the owners of their own bodies and not forcing them to do what they don’t want to do.
It’s also an important lesson in keeping themselves safe from potential child abusers, the majority of who are not strangers but known and trusted people, as confirmed by experts.
So when we get our children to hug people we know but they do not, who of course our children automatically assume are ‘known and trusted’, we are inadvertently making them vulnerable to potential predators, as pointed out by Ursula Wagner, a a US-based mental health clinician.
Wagner makes a valid point when she is quoted as saying, “If they [kids] are obligated to be affectionate even if they don’t want to, it makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse later on.” She adds, “It sends a message that there are certain situations (when) it’s not up to them what they do with their bodies.”
So now, my sons don’t hug others to please me or those other people. They are still polite and say “hello”, “goodbye”, “please” and “thank you”. And instead of giving hugs only to close friends and family, they also have the option of giving a high-five if they want to.
I will let my kids own their own bodies and I will respect their personal space.
And I won’t let them take on the burden that pleasing another person through physical affection is their responsibility.
Do you encourage your kids to hug others? Share your thoughts on this topic in a comment below.