When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
When I was a kid, you had to hug everybody. No matter how obscure the relative, or how weird they smelled, you had to hug them because they’re family and you love them and that’s what families do — even if you don’t know who the hell they are.
That’s why, when my wife told me not to coax my daughter into hugging her aunt who she’d never met before, I was surprised. I hadn’t thought about it before — it was just how you said “Hi” in my family. I totally get it though: My kid should be in charge of her body, and I shouldn’t force her to hug people who are essentially strangers to her.
So, I’m totally on board now. No forced hugs. Got it. But I’m struggling with how to explain to my old-fashioned relatives that we don’t make our child hug people. And more importantly, how to explain to my kid that it’s okay to refuse one.
Basically, how do I teach my kid to say no to unwanted hugs?
The Expert Advice
Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: First and foremost, we should respect kids. They should never be forced to do something that they’re uncomfortable doing. And, if you think about it, there’s a mixed message you’re sending to your kids if you try to teach them about consent while also telling them they have to hug someone.
It’s about respecting the temperament of your child. Some kids just aren’t touchy-feely, while others might be. You still want to teach kids how to be respectful, but it should be okay for them to say, “I don’t want to be hugged.”
In anticipation of family events and holidays, you should prepare your children. Let them know that they’re going to see their grandparents who they haven’t seen in a long time, and who may want to give them a hug. If they don’t want to hug them, that’s okay, but how else can they greet them? Then you can brainstorm ways together to make your relatives feel welcome. Maybe you draw them a picture ahead of time so you can give them a gift instead of having to hug them.
Additionally, you can have a similar conversation with those distant adults: Explain that they haven’t seen your kid for a while, and that your kid doesn’t always like to hug, so be prepared if they don’t want to hug you. Just ask them to allow the child to take the lead and cue them in so that they’re not overwhelming the child, either.
We all know those stories about parents who haven’t believed their children about something inappropriate that’s happened to them, and often that’s with a relative. So this is about listening to your child, and if they say, “I don’t want to hug Aunt Sophia anymore,” you can say, “Okay, why?”
Matt Brescia, father of three: Our kids have to be respectful and they have to greet the person visiting, but we don’t push them to hug anyone. There was a point when my middle son didn’t want to go near his great-grandmother — he would just cry and run away. This occured from about age one until he was almost five. We just left it as it was: At that point, he wasn’t comfortable with it, so no one pushed the issue.
My wife and I never sat down and had a formal discussion about it, but we both didn’t want to push him into something he wasn’t comfortable with, and really, if you think about it, it isn’t a big deal. They’re kids, and if someone’s going to get offended because a kid doesn’t want to hug them, that’s their problem.
As for my son, he’s six now, and he hugs and kisses his great-grandma all the time. He would see his older brother do it, and over time, he got to know her and we respected his feeling enough to allow him to do that on his own.
Jennifer Lehr, author of Parentspeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children — And What to Say Instead: Often, a grandparent may show up and a parent will say, “Go give grandma a hug,” and the child will basically put on a performance of affection and get rewarded for that. Through that, they learn that physical affection is how you make other people happy. They learn that making others happy is important, but how they feel isn’t important. That message gets wired to the children’s brains very young.
For my own children, when my parents would come over, I’d brainstorm with them. I’d say, “Grandma and grandpa are coming, how can we make them feel welcome?” And they would think of ideas that I never would have. Like, they’d pretend to be waiters and serve grandpa a bottle of Perrier and grandma a glass of orange juice. When they did that, my parents were delighted. They felt very welcome, and my children didn’t have to perform an act of affection that they didn’t genuinely feel. Then, as the visit went on, my mother asked my children if they’d like to read a book together, and they snuggled on the couch together. Then it was natural affection.
Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: Honoring the child’s feelings and the child’s body in a respectful way is extremely important in helping them use their emotions as signals and guides. If the child isn’t comfortable giving hugs, there are other ways to teach them to be welcoming while maintaining boundaries — for example, smiling, saying hello or giving a gift. It’s important to allow a youngster the space to warm up to others and decide for themselves if this person is safe. Pushing a child to give hugs and kisses also gives them the message to ignore their feelings of discomfort around others. It teaches them that their feelings are “silly.”
It would help to talk with the adults your children are going to meet and let them know that you’re trying to teach your child personal boundaries, along with socially acceptable ways of welcoming others. Your family could develop a way to greet others, or say thank you, without a hug being involved. That would allow your child to say something like, “In our family, we shake hands,” or fist bump.
Conversely, we want to help our child understand that hugging someone you’re comfortable with, asking for a hug as a means of comfort or giving a hug as an expression of gratitude, joy or sympathy, is a wonderful way to express loving feelings. We just don’t need to express those feeling all the time and in a contrived way.