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Recently, the Girl Scouts of America has come out and advised that this holiday season, parents should be cautious of “forcing” their children (girls in particular) to hug their own relatives.
Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she “owes” another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.
It has, of course, caused a twitterstorm of large proportion, with some personalities — even outspoken feminists like Christina Sommers — claiming that this just intensifies the division between the genders.
The Great Sex Panic of 2017 is intensifying. https://t.co/wpx33txir0
— Christina Sommers (@CHSommers) November 20, 2017
Others are more hesitant with “forcing” kids to display physical affection:
I agreed with the message to not force kids to kiss and hug relatives, but as a way to let the kid define their own level of comfort with physical contact
— Fco (@CuateVolador) November 21, 2017
And yet others — mainly adults — are relieved because they don’t want your “snotty, dirty kids drooling all over them.”
As a father of six, and a family therapist (and at one point having been a child myself), I am torn on this issue.
On one hand, instructing your children to “Go ahead – give Aunt Bee a hug” seems harmless. More than that, it seems appropriate. Educating our little ones that their bodies are a healthy form of expressing closeness, trust, intimacy and love is a good thing. I want that my boys and girl should feel comfortable expressing connection with their own bodies. More than that, barring issues, such as trauma, fear, distrust or suspected misconduct, I believe that within the context of certain family relationships connecting physically is the proper thing to do.
And I don’t believe it is something that should be solely left up to their own discretion. Without parental guidance, we can inadvertently be enabling our children to weaponize intimate touch. “Uncle Eric bought me a game-boy last year, so I want to hug him. Aunt Sally forced me to eat my peas before dessert — I don’t like her — so no hug for her”. This is the opposite of creating a healthy relationship with our own intimate power — this teaches us to view our bodies as a tool of manipulation — the hallmark of passive aggressive behavior.
On the other hand, teaching children that they are the arbiters of their bodies is empowering, and gives them a certain degree of agency. In how many areas of life do children have control at eight years old? Certainly, some domain over their own bodies should be one of them. And do I really want to give my little children the message that social & cultural norms outweigh their own body compass of what they feel comfortable with? That’s how you raise an out-of-touch zombie, not an independent human being.
After raising six children, I’m still undecided. I’m thankful that in my religion, our sages have shouldered some of the decision for me. Although there are exceptions, in general boys and girls don’t hug extended family members (of the opposite gender) past the age of nine. It is at this age that they are coming into awareness of their own sexuality, and begin understanding the dual-nature of touch. Amongst your own gender and immediate family, touch is a powerful means of bonding, connecting and expressing trust. But for maturing boys and girls, touch is sacred and is reserved solely for our life partner (of course — hugging Mom is always OK!).
And even with such guiding principles, it is never easy. We deal with conflicting cultural norms, embarrassing situations, and extenuating circumstances all the time. These are always great teaching opportunities, and chances to discuss our values. As usual, the most important rule to follow is the one that works best for you and your children — one that brings closeness, understanding, communication and trust to your relationships.