Developmental pediatricians are telling parents to reconsider the age-old practice of forcing children to hug or kiss members of the extended family when gathering at the holidays. They say doing so takes away the child’s autonomy over their own body and sends a message that it’s OK for others to demand affection.
The Girl Scouts published a parenting-advice article on the subject, titled: “Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays.”
Dr. Jack Levine, an executive committee member on developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the American Academy of Pediatrics, says what parents might see as simply showing respect or love for an elder can actually have a lasting impact on a child.
“They feel that external forces are more or equally as important as their own feelings and who they should be kissing and hugging, and then later on in life, who they should be intimate with,” Levine (@doctoj) tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young.
There are also other ways for children to interact with adult family members and family friends this time of year.
“They can take their coats when they come in, they can make drawings for them,” Levine says. “They can make place cards — do a number of other things, rather than things that they feel uncomfortable with.”
On why “forced affection” is problematic
“If you force children to hug or kiss someone who they may not know very well, then they’re not having a say in the decision on who to show their affection to. And then they begin to feel that showing this affection is expected at someone else’s asking, and that their feelings and thoughts don’t really matter on the issue, which is not a very positive experience for them.”
On how parents should approach this topic with their kids
“People have to understand that children have individual differences, as do adults, and that some children have a temperament where it’s a little slower for them to warm up to people. Other children may have social-emotional skills in which they take a longer time before they like to talk to people, or their ability to make friends is a little bit slower than other children and even language skills on occasion can be different. Some children don’t feel as comfortable in conversation. And all of this is OK, and … children just need to progress at their own speed, and they need the support and love of their caregivers to nurture them along the way and shepherd them so that when they’re ready to do these things, they can do them and feel good about it.”
“Some children don’t like to look at people in the eye. Some kids are a little more socially anxious than others. But there’s a lot of other ways that children can show respect for their relatives. … So I think it’s important for parents to discuss with their child, to prepare them, even role play with them perhaps, and then give the child a say and some forewarning and give them an opportunity to express their own feelings on how they want to show their respect to their relatives.”
On it being overwhelming for a child to suddenly have a room filled with people who want to hug them
“Very much so, and forcing them to do things makes matters worse. Most kids will come around, I believe. They will develop the social skills that are appropriate for them and for their family in getting along with relatives. It’s very important for parents to support their child in their decisions and feelings that they have about themselves and their bodies, and how they relate to other people, are validated.”
On characterizing a child’s behavior by saying they’re “just shy,” or using some sort of label
“Usually the label is perceived in a negative way. This goes back to the whole idea of individual differences, that some children may be not as outgoing. One of the challenges with caregivers and parents is that their child’s social ability and their temperament may be somewhat different than their own. So you may be a very outgoing person and always so happy to see your relatives, and hug and kiss them, and your child may be a little more inhibited and a little bit more cautious, and you may interpret that as a negative thing, rather than just as the child being themselves. We need to understand very much that it’s not about labeling — it’s about accepting the kids for where they are and encouraging them to be able to make good decisions.”