We've all been there. You're at a family gathering and when it comes time for greetings, your child shirks from hugging an aunt he barely knows from Adam. Should you force the issue or let it go?
Even for kids who are naturally affectionate, the expectation to embrace a family member can place an unhealthy pressure on children. They may not, for whatever reason, feel like being smothered in kisses at that moment.
As parents, we naturally feel the pull of expectation from our relatives who adore and likely miss our children. We don't want our relatives to feel rejected or disrespected. We don't want our children to come across as cold. So with the best intentions, we nudge little Johnny forward into an unwanted embrace.
Experts caution against such behaviour.
First and foremost, forcing a child to hug people they don't want to sends a message that their rights are less important to that of an adult's. It breaks down the ultimate trust - between parent and child.
It sends the message that children should unthinkingly defer to the whims and wants of grown-ups, some of whom may not have the child's best interests at heart, according to Peter Saunders, chief executive of the U.K.-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood. When we force them into any kind of affection, we are teaching them - how ever subtly - that their own physical and psychological wellbeing comes second to that of others.
Sure, most adults are loving and harmless in their affection, but do we really want kids ignoring their own comfort signals? Personal boundaries matter, and kids need to tune into their own perimeters early on. As parents we should be empowering our kids, not overruling their bodily autonomy to please our relatives.
Easier said than done. How many of us remember squirming in an unwanted embrace as a child?
"There are certain things we [should] make children do which is quite different," said Saunders. "We make them brush their teeth, for example. That is quite different to forcing them to kiss an uncle they don't want to. It's about boundaries. And this blurring of boundaries [by forcing them to kiss someone they don't want to] can indeed blur their understanding of what is right and wrong, about their body belonging to them."
There are ways to strike a balance between respecting our children and appeasing adults.
Experts suggest giving kids a choice of age-appropriate responses to hugs and kisses. For example, a six year old can be prepped before a gathering the she can choose a high-five or fist bump over a hug if that's all she feels comfortable with in the moment. It may not be what the grown up was hoping for, but it saves face and avoids being seen as rude. If the child opts for a spontaneous hug, great. At least the ball is firmly in the child's court.
It may be a good idea to tactfully remind adults before they kneel with outstretched arms that your child can take a little while to warm up and that you are encouraging them to do what feels comfortable. If all else fails, keep the mood light and try make a joke to defuse the situation.
I know in my son's case, it's quite telling those relatives he will rush to embrace and those from whom he naturally holds back. It's his call. And sometimes it's just a matter of timing. Affection at the end of a nice visit is much more likely than at the start.
Give me a natural hug over a forced one any day of the week.