Two of my good friends had their first baby late this past year. From the get-go, Baby was a cuddly little girl. (Or, as her two moms say, “We assume she’s a girl, but we won’t know for sure until she tells us herself.”)
She was all about being held and being rocked — and crying her head off the moment anybody dared to put her down. She wanted contact with all the people ever (as most children do at that young an age).
But in the past couple of months, it seems like she’s had a serious change of heart. When some of us were over for a visit, Baby suddenly wanted none of it. Passed from one person to the next, she wailed like a banshee until finally given back to one of her moms, where she instantly quieted.
“Don’t take it personally,” Mama said to everyone, bouncing Baby. “She’s just entering that stage where she’s developing some healthy stranger danger.”
And so the new process emerged: One of us would attempt to hold Baby every once in a while. And if she cried for more than 20 seconds, we’d hand her back to one of her moms.
Seeing them regard their child like that was admittedly an eye-opening experience for me. I’d grown up in a world where you hugged relatives or family friends no matter what.
I recognize the reasons why some parents or guardians would want to enthusiastically encourage their children to hug relatives and family friends. Hugs are positive, right? They instill trust, good will, and healthy connections to the people closest to you, right?
Dear parents et al: I understand where you’re coming from, and your intentions are innocent and well-meaning. But here are a few reasons why forcing your child to hug another person can be a bad idea.
This is particularly relevant for female-presenting people. In our patriarchal world of the male gaze and body policing and sexual assault, it’s hugely important to teach girls (as well as everyone else) that it’s never OK to be made to touch another person when you don’t want to.
The message doesn’t even have to be in a sexual context. A person’s body is their own body. They can do what they want with it.
Seriously. Whatever you want. People shouldn’t care, and you shouldn’t care about them caring. But when something such as being forced to hug (or be hugged by) people at a young age, we’re instilling the message that our bodies are never our own.
Instead, we’re saying that a person is everyone else’s physical and political property. And that’s not cool.
Chilling, no? But it’s pretty simple logic:
- Child is told to hug So-And-So.
- Child expresses some manner of decline, hesitation, or rejection at the idea of hugging So-And-So.
- Child is guilted, shamed, belittled, manipulated, or otherwise made to feel forced to hug So-And-So.
- Child hugs So-And-So.
- Child feels like sh*t for being reprimanded over not wanting to hug So-And-So and still ended up having to hug So-And-So.
- Child says to self, “It would behoove me in the ongoing future to stop resisting said hugging, seeing as how it doesn’t work and only makes matters worse. Resisting touch equals reprimand. I daresay this is an epiphany of biblical proportions.”
Or something like that. You get the idea. Adults are the authority figures in a child’s life. This is a necessary, natural state of being, because honestly, who else is going to show them the ropes?
But make sure you’re showing them the right ropes. Having legal possession over a child doesn’t mean they’re your property; it means they’re your responsibility.
By forcing a child to hug, you’re telling them, “Yes, I’m in charge here, which means you have to do everything I say.” Sorry, but no. You’re in charge here, which means it’s your job to make sure that the kid grows up to be the most functioning adult they’re capable of being.