personal space

Don’t Tell a Little Girl to Hug Someone Against Her Will

Photo: Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

As I watch the accusations roll in against Donald Trump, I’m starting to think I should be more sensitive to the way I’m teaching my daughter to interact with the people around her. And, I like to think, I’m already pretty sensitive.

I grew up hearing “Give your grandma a hug” over and over. Though my parents weren’t bossy or overly strict, they did insist that we — my three brothers and I — were respectful of our elders. Often, to my dismay as a young kid, this included coerced affection for old people.

It didn’t seem like a big deal; surely Grandma deserves a hug once in a while. But child psychologists argue that forcing a child to be affectionate against her will essentially teaches them that they don’t own their own bodies. Plenty of parents, breaking with traditions of the past, I’ve found since becoming a mother, don’t ask their kids to hug or kiss if they aren’t interested.

But the coercion breaks down along gendered lines. Even in 2016, raising a girl is very different from raising a boy. No matter how hard parents try (and many of us really do try), studies have found that most of us still end up reinforcing stereotypes about gender differences before our kids are teenagers, and it goes far beyond pink and blue. Aggressiveness, loudness, and even rudeness are often tolerated in boys as simply “the way they are,” while girls are raised to be quiet and polite, even when politeness means hugging strange adults they met five minutes ago.

Sarah, a mother of three (two daughters, one son), not only refuses to force her kids to hug people they don’t want to hug, but also taught them to ask her permission to hug adults outside their immediate family. “To me, it’s about safety, and teaching them to trust their instincts,” she says. “I think with something like this, especially for girls, the drive to be liked and to be perceived as polite has superseded our instinct to protect ourselves.”

Teaching girls who become young women that being polite — even in the face of physical discomfort — is their most important social skill can have long-lasting effects. Just ask some of the women who’ve accused Trump of inappropriate behavior decades ago, but only now are feeling safe enough to come forward. “What’s the lesson you teach a girl when you say you have to hug someone, when they’ve already indicated that they don’t want to?” Sarah asks. “You’re saying, ignore your instincts, and this other person is more important than your own feelings.”

She even confronted a male friend of hers — also a father — when he asked his daughter to hug an acquaintance good-bye. “I don’t want to be the person making a big deal out of nothing,” she said, “but people don’t realize how this can affect the way girls think about their bodies.”

I didn’t know any of the research on forced hugging when I went into motherhood, but I instinctively fell into the “not going to force her” camp, not knowing that this could, in fact, lead to some awkward social situations, even with close family members. One mother of twins told me, “We never force them to hug, but a lot of our older family members request hugs at holidays. Most of the time they cry. I didn’t expect to be embarrassed, especially when it’s my own dad, but it’s a little heartbreaking. It almost made me feel as if I had failed somehow, to make my own kids care about my father’s feelings.”

Even still, she remains firm: “I just tell people, ‘They’re in a weird phase.’ I don’t want to make them do it. My parents did, and I still remember being scared and nervous about it.”

Parents are left weighing the pressure to be polite with a set of bigger issues: What do we want to teach young girls about consent? Do we want them to think that their own needs and desires don’t matter? That they should be affectionate with people even if they don’t want to? When we ask the questions this way, it puts them in a wholly new light, and begs us to consider each decision we make fully and think about the consequences reverberating out into our kids’ lives as they grow.

Trump’s accusers have shown real courage in coming forward, especially since the strides we are making toward ending treatment like this are slow. But we should reassure ourselves that there are things — even small things — we can do to teach our children how to be better. We can teach our sons to respect the personal space of others, and we can teach our daughters that they don’t have to touch people they don’t want to, at the expense of their own comfort.

Don’t Tell a Little Girl to Hug Someone Against Her Will