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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