My first grade crew is all boys, and they’ve been quite the challenge this year. They’re constantly in motion, they’re loud, there is a constant flow of bodily noises, and they leave me exhausted every day. However, as the year has passed, they have grown into loving little souls and I’m so proud of them. I’m especially proud of an encounter we had last week.
One of my little friends, I’ll call him Kyle, moved to a new school last week. Kyle came a long way with us this year. He went from being loud, rude, and self-centered to thoughtful, caring, and a little gentleman. He still has his moments, but they were few and far between. His friend, we will call him Harry, was the same way.
On Kyle’s last day, he was hugging all of his friends goodbye while I was packing up all of his things. I was trying to hold back tears myself when Kyle came running up to me with tears streaking down his recess-dirt-covered little face.
“Mrs. T, Harry won’t hug me goodbye!” he wailed. He looked angrily in the corner, where Harry stood with tears running down his face as well. “Make him give me a hug!”
“I will do no such thing, Kyle,” I said quietly. Kyle stopped crying. I could see his face begin to turn red, and I knew a blow up was coming. I asked the rest of the class if they would give Kyle, Harry, and me a moment at my desk. The class knows this is code for, “I’m having a discussion on behavior, please work independently for awhile.” and immediately went to work. Kyle and Harry approached my desk.
“Kyle, do you want the last memory Harry has of you is being forced to hug you when he doesn’t want to?” I asked.
“No, Mrs. T. I want him to remember me happy. But I want my friend to hug me too,” he cried. I explained to him that it is never okay to force someone to do something with their body that they are uncomfortable with. “But why doesn’t Harry want to hug me? We’re friends!”
“Did you bother to ask Harry why he does not want a hug before you became angry?” I asked. He had not. I prompted him to ask Harry what is going on in his mind.
“Hugs make my body feel crawly,” Harry said simply. “I don’t like hugs, sometimes not even from my mommy and daddy. They make my body feel like there’s bugs all over me.”
“Now Kyle, do you want Harry to feel like there are bugs crawling all over his body? Would that make you happy if your body felt like there were bugs on it when someone made you hug?”
“No, Mrs. T! That’s gross!” Kyle responded. “I’m sorry, Harry. Don’t be sad.”
I asked Kyle if he could ask Harry if there was a way that he could say goodbye that made him happy. He did and Harry responded that he wants to do their secret handshake instead (to which I had to turn my back, because you know, 1st grade secret handshakes are more classified than anything in the FBI files).
Too often, we see adults forcing children into hugs. Oh, just give Aunt Myrtle a hug and a kiss, we say to avoid conflict at family functions. Sit on Pappy’s lap. Grammy will be sad if you don’t give her a hug goodbye. I’ve had it done to me, and I’m sure you’ve had it done to you as a child. Sometimes the child begrudgingly complies, sometimes there is an all-out meltdown, sometimes they don’t think anything of it and just do it.
This is so dangerous.
By doing this, we are teaching children that their bodies are not their own. We are teaching them that their bodies are the property of the adults around them. We teach them that their discomfort and feelings are less important than their grown relatives or grown friends of the family, or even their peers, siblings, and cousins. We are teaching them that it’s more important for them to comply to requests for affection than it is for them to advocate for their body.
This dangerous mindset moves through children’s lives as they age. When they’re teenagers at their first boy-girl party, a girl doesn’t know how to stand up for herself when a boy forces a hug on her and pats her butt. A boy doesn’t know what to do when that cute girl starts putting her hand on his knee, or higher. They’re used to people invading their space when they don’t want it. They’re used to being forced into hugs and kisses from relatives, so they don’t know how to handle it when an acquaintance, friend, or stranger does it as well.
It also teaches kids that it is okay to invade other people’s space. It teaches them that it is okay to force their friend into a hug. They think it is no big deal when their friend squirms away for them to just hold on tighter. They think nothing of it when they rub up on someone at a party when they are older because everyone else is doing it. They don’t pick up on the nonverbal (and sometimes verbal) cues that people are giving because their nonverbal and verbal cues were ignored as children.
I am not making excuses for those that push the physical boundaries and make others feel uncomfortable. It is so wrong and there should be consequences. We need to make a change in our culture, and it needs to start with children. We need to stop ignoring children when they don’t want to give affection. We need to stop forcing children into hugs, coercing them into being affectionate with relatives because we don’t want to upset dear Aunt Ruby. We need to teach the adults around us to respect it when a child says no. We need to teach children to advocate for their bodies and to be able to tell others when something makes them uncomfortable. While an explanation is not needed, we should teach kids to explain to others why they are uncomfortable in order for others to be understanding. We need to teach our children to respect the boundaries of others. Maybe then we will see less of the terrible news stories, we will see less children taken advantage of. Maybe then we will have a future of mindful adults who respect each other.