Forcing children to hug sends a bad message

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Growing up as the eldest child of a Presbyterian minister, I was spoon-fed politeness and obedience along with my morning porridge.

I was taught to always respect my elders, and to call every single man or woman I encountered ''Uncle'' or ''Aunty'', regardless of whether I was actually related to them. I usually did not mind this too much, as I genuinely liked most of my parents' friends, and indeed, considered them a sort of extended family.

But sometimes this forced intimacy tasted of bitter gall - especially when my parents compelled me to hug virtual strangers in the name of politeness.

Feel free to call me overly politically correct, but forcing an obviously uncomfortable child to embrace someone is not acceptable. Issues of sexual harassment and consent are at the forefront of our consciousness, so why are we teaching young children that their body is not their own?

Speaking from personal experience, the lessons we learn in our childhood about our bodies, consent, respect and physical boundaries last a lifetime. I can still remember feeling compelled to hug the creepy father of one of my school friends because it was ''the right thing to do''.

I was only 12, and his gaze lingered uncomfortably on my prepubescent chest. But I had been taught that denying an adult physical contact was a huge sign of disrespect. What could I do? I endured the hand on the small of my back, and felt gross for the rest of the day.

Obviously, I can understand why some parents would want to encourage their children to hug relatives and family friends. Hugs are usually a positive way of connecting with someone, instilling trust, friendship and a healthy connection with those you know and love.

Yet this is only the case when hugs - or any other physical contact - are given consensually. For girls and boys, physical touch should never be coercive. We have it drilled it into us from a young age that no-one gets to touch us without our permission, but when our parents force us to hug someone, we are taught that politeness comes first, before our own comfort and bodily autonomy.

One could argue that forcing your child to embrace another person teaches them that adults have the right to touch their body at any time. Consider this. A little girl is told to hug a family friend. The family friend is probably a lovely, harmless person. But for some reason, the child expresses hesitation at the idea of hugging this person. Then the parent guilt-trips, belittles and manipulates the child into hugging the family friend, so the child does. Then the child feels guilty for not wanting to hug the person, and thinks to herself, ''There's no point in resisting these hugs, as I'll only get told off.'' And so on and so forth.

Forcing children to endure affection from relatives also teaches them that relatives cannot be abusers. But a recent New Zealand Herald article found that last year, police attended around 105,000 domestic violence incidents. If all incidents were reported, they would have attended at least 525,000 calls for help. Obviously, there is a huge difference between a caring embrace from a grandfather and actual, insidious, sexual violence. But teaching our children that relatives have the right to touch them whenever and wherever they please no doubt contributes to the pervasiveness of this abuse.

Finally, forced intimacy also sends the message that physical contact is the only way one can show affection for another person. Some people simply do not like physically connecting with others. Are their relationships, friendships and family bonds any less valid? No. There are plenty of ways to show love for another human being.

So the next time Aunt Marge asks for a kiss in return for a birthday present, do not pressure your child into unwanted physical contact. There are plenty of alternatives to hugging - perhaps your child could give high-fives, fist-bumps or shake hands. Maybe they could show the relative or family friend a picture they have drawn, or a certificate of their achievement at school.

Aunt Marge might be slightly disappointed, but she will get over it.

I am 23 years old, but I am still terrified of kicking up a fuss if an older person touches me inappropriately. Please believe me when I say the lessons, habits and manners we are taught as young children are virtually impossible to shake off. If I ever have children, I am going to do my utmost to raise them to be loving, kind, compassionate and supportive people.

I will encourage them to share with others, and to welcome healthy friendships.

But I will never force them to physically touch someone they do not want to.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.



Unfortunately society is cottoning on to a belief that love is a physical feeling that people are expected to manifest as a sign of an attempt at virtue. Love should be reaching to the psyche/ soul and is a uniting with another person's struggle for continuity in this life.

True, but that is not the concern of children. Politeness just because someone is older is unsafe.