Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
By James St. James
(Content Warnings: incest, rape, and sexual violence)
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.
But in the past couple of months, it seems 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.
If Baby didn’t want to be held by certain people, Baby didn’t have to be held by certain people.
It was as simple as that – and something her moms are determined to keep in place as Baby gets older.
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. To deny them was considered a huge sign of disrespect, and nothing was worse than disrespecting someone older than you.
It was icky, as my six-year-old self would say.
To be fair, I recognize the reasons why some parents or guardians would want to—shall we say—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?
Of course they do – when they’re given consensually. And even four-year-olds have bodily autonomy, and therefore, the right to consent (or not).
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.
1. It Teaches Your Child That They Don’t Have Control Over Their Own Bodies
This is particularly relevant for female-presenting people.
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.
They can pierce it and tattoo it and color its hairs and fill it with organic vegan cheese and drown it in bourbon and jump it out of an airplane with a parachute and turn its penis into a vulva and run it 14 miles every morning and have it sleep until noon and draw little smiley faces on its fingers for impromptu puppets.
Seriously. Whatever you want. People shouldn’t care, and you shouldn’t care about them caring. Yay everyone!
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.
2. It Implies That You (Or Adults in General) Have the Right to Touch Your Child How They Want, When They Want
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 hugSo-And-So.
Child hugs So-And-So.
Child feels like shit 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.
See the difference?
3. It Tells Them That Relatives Can’t Be Abusers
I know this to be true because it 100% happened to me. My grandfather was a most unfortunate creature, and his sexual violence toward me started when I was ridiculously young. It continued on for several years, undetected the entire time, in part because of this whole hugging issue.
You see, it was cyclical for me.
Not only was I forced to hug my rapist in front of people on a regular basis – which I’m damn sure he got an additional sick sense of pleasure from – but one of the reasons I never told anybody about the sexual violence was because I assumed behaviors such as the forced hugging meant that the violence was also acceptable for him to do.
He was a relative, and relatives couldn’t be abusers.
Why else would forced contact be so widespread amongst families? He even manipulated the entire issue in his favor with such simple phrases as “It’s just like hugging.”
Made sense to me.
For the record, I’m not saying that it means a child has been abused by a given person when they refuse to hug that person. There are all sorts of reasons they may not want to hug someone, plenty of them benign.
A child not wanting to hug someone because that person hurt them is – I hope – still a less-than-likely occurrence. But the fact remains that situations like mine do happen.
And while I’ve never believed the hugging issue in itself somehow caused the assaults – abuse is always, always the fault of the abuser themselves – it would’ve at least been nice to not have been forced to fake innocent, childlike affection for him in public, confusing the hell out of my sense of right and wrong the whole while.
4. It Disregards Your Child’s Comfort Zone
I implied this in above points, but I’ll say it outright now: Your child is not your Mini Me. They’re their own person, however developing and in-training they may be emotionally, mentally, or physically.
Which for this article means that their comfort zone may vary from yours.
Hugs may not mean the same to them as they do to you. Please respect that.
5. It Risks Dismantling Their Natural, Healthy Sense of Stranger Danger
I’m actually not a fan of the term “stranger danger” since it can accidentally imply that all strangers are bad and all non-strangers are good, but I’m going with it since it’s a term I’m confident most people are familiar with.
But as a refresher, “stranger danger” is pretty much when your brain goes, “Uhh… I don’t want that person near me.” And then you often respond to your brain’s message by doing what you can to politely avoid said person.
It’s meant to be a survival tactic.
Growing up, your senses are meant to develop in a way that subconsciously tells you when you might be in danger.
Of course, this can go sour in all sorts of ways, a great example being white people feeling stranger danger when they cross a black man on the sidewalk at night. Many white people automatically want to cut to the other side of the street not because they’ve ever been hurt by a black man before, but because they were raised in a racist society or otherwise have instilled many of the negative, sensationalized messages portrayed by the media.
These survival misfires can also happen with children and hugging.
In the instance of a child being forced to hug an adult even when they don’t want to, they learn to not always trust their gut instincts when it comes to their safety, their surroundings, and the people they don’t know very well or are meeting for the first time.
Essentially, it’s a child’s brain saying, “Ack! Something that’s making us uncomfortable! Hold for safety confirmation before engaging in said hug!” And the adults are saying, “Screw confirmation. Just hug Second Cousin Gertrude, for chrissake.”
You may know that Gertrude is fine and dandy, but your child needs to learn that for themselves. They need to make that decision on their own.
6. It Ignores Any Important, Subtle Cues Your Child Is Trying to Tell You
As I said before, a child not wanting to hug an adult could be a purely innocent thing, the child doing nothing more than learning about the world through trial and error.
However, not wanting to hug could possibly mean that something more is going on. The relative or family friend could have hurt the child in the past intentionally (assault) or accidentally (stepped on their hand while crossing the room).
Or done something to frighten them, like telling them a scary story or not realizing dressing like a vampire for Halloween made the child think they really were a vampire. (And let’s be fair: They could be. Have you witnessed any sparkling?)
Or the child has somehow made a connection between the person and something they don’t like, such as the person smelling like Brussel sprouts.
There are all sorts of scenarios.
And while the child responding to something like assault is certainly up there with the most alarming possibilities, there are also such no-hug cues as the early signs of autism or Asperger’s syndrome, which can involve an aversion to touch.
When a child rejects a hug either from one adult or several, feel free to sit them down and gently ask if there’s any reason they didn’t want to hug them.
It could very well be nothing, but in the event that it isn’t, it’s better for your child’s health if you find out sooner rather than later.
7. It Sends the Message That Hugging (Or Physical Contact in General) Is the Only Way to Show Affection or Appreciation for Another Person
We as a culture simply need to stop drilling into our own heads that there are only a select few ways to show love for another human being.
Families don’t need hugs in order to count as families, friendships don’t need high fives to pledge loyalty, and romantic relationships don’t need sex to be considered serious.
Are these things nice to give and receive? Sure. But only if both parties actually want them.
Such things only hold so much affection weight because we’ve given them that weight ourselves.
To someone who doesn’t want it, an affectionate action is rendered meaningless at best and damaging at worst.
Forcing hugging on a child tells them that 1) they’re expected to show affection toward this person, and 2) that this is exactly how they must show that affection.
Instead of being a hug tyrant, allow your child to be creative in how they show affection. Let them draw a picture or share a piece of their favorite food or read to you from their library book.
Those gestures count just as much as a hug. And your child needs to be validated in that fact.
To sum, could Grandma’s feelings be hurt because Little Susie wouldn’t hug her? Possibly.
But her hurt feelings don’t outweigh the risky lessons Little Susie may internalize if she’s made to touch someone she doesn’t want to touch.
I don’t care how wise and worldly and awesome Grandma is. Her wants are not more important than Little Susie’s.
Children are people with developing brains and emotions and behaviors. They’re not stuffed animals.
Adults, on the other hand, are full-grown, experienced people who should be able to rationally understand and accept the nature of a child that isn’t interested in a hug.
So when your child comes in contact with such a situation, let them know that it’s okay if they don’t want to hug someone.
Repeat it to the person your child didn’t want to hug, especially if their feelings seem hurt over the matter.
And to anybody who in turn has had their feelings hurt by a kid rejecting them, I can only echo the wisdom of my two friends.
“Don’t take it personally.”
(James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy. Follow him on Twitter @JamesStJamesVI.)