3 reasons your kid doesn’t have to hug everyone

3 reasons your kid doesn't have to hug everyone
At a recent family gathering, my brother-in-law wanted a hug from my toddler, but LO was in no mood for hugging. Rather than forcing him to hug or sheepishly making excuses as to why he refused, I told LO, “Looks like you don’t want to hug right now. Maybe later?” I suggested. “Later,” my toddler agreed. My brother-in-law requested a high-five instead, which LO conceded was more doable than hugs and proffered his hand for some good ol’ palm-smacking.

In my family, you hug and kiss everyone, especially adults. I remember huge gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins galore, and every time people walked in, everyone stood up to hug and kiss the newcomers, sometimes before they’ve even set their purses or coats down. This wasn’t limited to just hellos either; come departure time, the same rounds of farewells happened all over again.

Considering that that is the norm in my family, I may just be the black sheep among huggers and kissers. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely understand where this multitude of greetings comes from: it’s a sign of respect and manners. Imagine hosting a party and your guest gives you a head nod and a “‘Sup?” on their way to the drinks. In addition to manners, it’s important show respect to the elders—the people who generally keep the family unit cohesive (and prepare all the food). I get that.

But I also need to re-frame this tradition in a way my toddler can comprehend and will even eagerly participate in. It’s one thing for me to grow up knowing you greet people because that’s just what we do; it’s another to understand the reason why and feel comfortable doing so. As such, I don’t expect my toddler to hug everyone in the room against his will because:

1. I want to respect his space
Kids—especially the little ones—can easily feel overwhelmed when entering a house full of people, some of whom they don’t see on a regular basis. Adults can adapt quickly to these situations; kids—not so much. I want him to know that he is entitled to his personal space even amidst an onslaught of puckered lips and outstretched arms.

2. I want to respect his body
One of my huge tenets when it comes to kids knowing when to say ‘no’—even to adults—is to always respect a child’s body. How often do parents warn their kids about inappropriate touching when we ourselves force them to hug and kiss those they don’t want to? Especially when it comes to strangers, we often send the mixed message of “Just say no” with “Hug this strange man even though you don’t want to.” I want my toddler to know that—with few exceptions—he has absolute jurisdiction over his body.

3. I want him to want to hug everyone
Before you start thinking I’m anti-hugging, I actually love that my family is quite the hugging type and enjoy seeing my toddler greet everyone. However, when I was a kid—especially as an I’m-too-cool-for-this teenager—I honestly didn’t want to hug everyone. I want my toddler to show manners and respect and express genuine interest in those around him.

So, instead of forcing him to give hugs, we:

  • Model proper behavior. When you want your kid to say hi to everyone, it’s probably best to lead by example. Usually with my toddler in tow, I try to say hi to everyone so he sees that saying hello is a pleasant experience.
  • Hype up the crowd. On our way to a party, we talk about the people we’ll see. “Remember how tita L taught you that song about fingers and toes?” or “Grandma will be there; remember she visited us last week and said we’ll see her soon?” This way, he gets excited about the people he’ll see.
  • Tell him what to expect. Similarly, we also describe the party: “There will be lots of people there, and they’ll probably all come to the door when we walk in.” With descriptions, he’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
  • Ask him first. Once he’s finally at the party and people are clamoring to hug him, I ask his permission first. For instance, I’ll say, “Want to give your cousin a hug?” or “Let’s go say ‘hi’ to your tia.” The tone is always one where he can refuse rather than one of forced commands.
  • Tell the truth. Usually he likes hugging people, but for the times he doesn’t, I try and stick to the truth rather than excusing his behavior with false notions. For instance, I’ll say, “Looks like he doesn’t want to give hugs right now. Maybe in a few minutes he’ll be up for it.”
  • Offer an alternative. Just as my brother-in-law extended a high-five in lieu of a hug, giving alternatives can offer my toddler a chance to say hello without having to full-on hug someone. In addition to high-fives, we also suggest waving his hand, simply saying “hi” or giving hugs at a different time.

I’m hoping to interweave cultural expectations and manners with respecting my toddler’s space and decisions. I would hate for my family to feel disrespected because I don’t force him to greet everyone; nor would I want to disregard my toddler’s feelings. Instead, I’d like him to grow up willingly giving hugs—or high-fives—all on his own.

Does your family have expectations that kids should hug everyone? Have you run into problems where your kids would rather not hug and greet others?

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17 thoughts on “3 reasons your kid doesn’t have to hug everyone

  1. I have always hated the “come give me a kiss,” when it comes to children and when adults make their children, “Give Aunt Jan a kiss,” I always say that it is not necessary. Whuy do we want kids to do it when adults aren’t even that friendly. then, adults try to make the children feel guilty when affection is withheld. It is all about what adults want: “they want a kiss from a great little kid,” and they never think about the child. DH comes from a very reserved family, so I can see him respecting the child on this one. It doesn’t, however, help children understand the boundaries of family and their own bodies and who they should actually be showing affection to and when/why. I guess, it bothers me even more because adults areen’t even that Huggy” in my family, but they want the kids (little babies) to be.

  2. This is such an interesting post. I come from a family that doesn’t hug when we see each other at gatherings and MAYBE hug when we leave. My husband’s family, on the other hand, are not only huggers…but kissers too! Uggh! Coming from a no-touch family you can imagine how difficult it was for me to accept this. Fortunately we have moved from kissing on the lips (oh my gosh!) to kissing on the cheek. I still wish we could give European kisses instead. Maybe I can work that out with his family one day.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am an affectionate person. Actually, as my mother is getting older, she will hug when one of us departs; very uncommon given her “no touch” policy. She kisses and hugs Oster all of the time, though. In my side of the family, hugging little kids is the only exception to the policy.

    It’s interesting because ALL of the kids in our families ARE huggers. And if a child doesn’t want to hug, the parent usually asks if they want to give a hug and if the child says no, they do not push it. A high five is a great alternative (or a fist bump).

    I appreciate you sharing your ideas with how you handle the family expectations and what you do to prepare for the visit beforehand. Hopefully Oster won’t have the touch-phobia with adult family members that my mom and dad instilled in me and my siblings.

    • We’re all about the European kisses too, where they’re not even real kisses, it’s more like a cheek bump haha. There definitely seems to be varying degrees of comfort levels, whether by culture, family or even region.

  3. Hugs and/or kisses are required for grandparents, but that’s it. We always let Baguette have alternatives (high-fives, blowing kisses, even just waving) with other people. And even with grandparents, we only require them upon departure. She needs a little warm-up time when she first sees people, but is very affectionate when it’s time to go. Frankly, she doesn’t always even want to kiss me, although she wants to snuggle with me about 75% of the time we’re together.

    With other people’s children, I always ask if I can have a hug. If they say no, I always say, “Okay, can we shake hands?” I think the child ought to be able to control that much of their lives.

    But neither Mr. Sandwich nor I think it’s asking too much to give Grandma or Grandpa a hug when saying goodbye.

  4. Great discussion–such conundrums! My family when I was growing up were not physically demonstrative, but my sister and I value the hugs and holding and rocking and kissing. Yet we do NOT force the weebot to hug or kiss friends/relatives; we model behavior and let them do what we want. We’ve taught them to shake hands (“nice to meet you” :>), high five, low five, and give the “knuck” (knuckles, followed by a finger explosion–who knew, a year ago???) And are fortunate that the extended family doesn’t take the behavior of two year-olds personally.

  5. I wish I’d had those choices. Because of all the compulsory hugging I endured as a child, I’m not much of hugger. I hate to admit that I gave my kids fewer hugs than I should have because of my aversion to it. But at least they understand why.
    Great suggestions for alternatives.

  6. Really great post. My family is a big on the ritual hug and kiss, so much so that leaving can take up to half an hour because if any conversation disrupted the ritual, then we hug and kiss again. I love this about my family, but I’ve noticed Lane doesn’t know what to make of it. Usually, when he turns his head away from a kiss, I make an excuse that he’s sleepy, but I love your solution: being honest (he doesn’t want to give a kiss) and giving my child options (if he doesn’t want to kiss, maybe he’d be willing to do a high-five). Thank you for sharing the great advice!

    • Oh man we have the same ritual. It’s a running joke that if you plan to leave at a certain time from a family party, schedule in an extra 20 minutes because that’s how long it’ll take you to make your rounds and say goodbye to everybody!

      I’ve told people that my little guy was sleepy/tired/not in the mood as an excuse too but usually I try to make sure he really was feeling those things and that I wasn’t just making something up to make the other person feel better. But more often than not he really isn’t in the mood and I have to be honest with the other person!

  7. And, sometimes adults can act very offended when/if your child does not want to lavish affection. Oh well. I’ll find out soon enough. We have a family reunion on the 16th and my Ganja bacha will be 6mo.

  8. This is a great post. Our little one doesn’t care for hugging anybody other than mom and dad. And I find that perfectly acceptable. She sees us do it with our families and friends. I figure once she is ready, she will do it on her own.
    Frankly, for me it is much more important to respect her space and her feelings and to teach her that when it comes to her body, the decision should always be hers, rather than to worry whether grandma and grandpa get a hug every time. They’ll get over it, but she is learning that what she wants and thinks and feels matters.
    If somebody asks for a hug, I tell them the truth. If they keep insisting or make an attempt on their own, I interfere. But that rarely happens.

    • I agree. It is so much more important for our little ones to learn to respect their own opinions and comfort level with things than to not offend someone. Besides concerns about child sexual abuse and so forth, I want my kids to be capable of saying no as teens and young adults as well and I think that body self respect starts now.

  9. Thanks for your tips on talking to the little ones in advance about what to expect at the gathering. I don’t think I had ever thought about doing that, but it’s just one more way to show respect to your kid!

  10. This is so important, thanks for writing this. I want my son to know his body is his own, and that it is ok to say no to the types of touching that make him uncomfortable. My family is similar to yours, but my husband and I have vowed never to force Simon into unwanted kisses or hugs, because some people are just less physical and huggy than others. I never want him to run into a situation with an adult who wants to be inappropriately close to him, and for him to feel he needs to comply because they are a grown up. However, I do role-model hugs when greeting those we are close to.

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