Monday, January 21, 2013

To Hug or Not to Hug

When I was in elementary school, I was in a gifted program at a school outside my neighborhood "zone" and was therefore entitled to special education busing services. A special ed bus picked me up at my house and took me and several other students to a bus depot where we were then transferred to larger buses that took us to our respective schools. When I was in maybe third grade, there was a boy named Grant that also rode the bus. I have no idea what special education services he required or what challenges he faced during his day, but I do remember very clearly that he was very interested in me. He always took the seat behind me and would frequently reach over the seat and touch me, play with my hair, etc. I HATED it. I didn't feel comfortable talking to the bus aide about it so every day I just dealt with the invasion of my personal space. It was awful.

I mention this story because the only "negative" feedback (if you can call it that) at Pacey's winter school conference related to his habit of hugging his teachers and classmates. Now, this isn't exactly a problem for the time being. I accompany him to his classroom in the morning and I try to help him recognize when his classmates don't want a hug (which he doesn't accept easily). Every morning, however, he does run in and immediately give his teacher a big hug.

His teacher has no problem with hugging, and pointed out that many of the other kindergarteners also give her hugs. The problem comes as the kids get older and most naturally develop restraint when it comes to physical affection and appreciate others' personal space; this does not strike me as something that will come naturally for Pacey. He has a hard time with conditional things: when it's ok to do something in one venue but not another. Nobody particularly minds his hugging at age 6, but the staff's point was that it gets less cute and less socially acceptable the older a student gets and the suggestion was to start addressing it now before it is a problem.

It's really hard to know what to do in this situation. Chris and I are very affectionate with our kids and hug/kiss them frequently. Both kids are accustomed to hugging close family friends and relatives, and in general seem to be naturally physically affectionate. It's hard to figure out, at this age, where to draw a clear line that they can understand. Additionally, I don't want Pacey singled out at school; if his teacher is comfortable with hugs and other kids are hugging her too then it's not fair or reasonable to expect that she somehow refuse him. I know a big part of it for him is routine; he started out giving her a hug every day and now it's his habit. He has a VERY hard time changing routines. We may be able to adjust routines at the start of the new school year to take care of the teacher issue, specifically.

However. I have such a clear memory of my personal space being violated by someone that I don't believe understood why it wasn't ok. I absolutely believe that people of any age are entitled to decline a hug from my child, and I want to help him understand and accept that. Additionally, and I've mentioned this before, the kids need to start developing a sense of personal boundaries as it relates to adults they don't know well. Pacey will quite happily hug a complete stranger and that in itself has resulted in some awfully uncomfortable situations at times. I am, of course, grateful that it's an excess of affection we are dealing with and not an aggressive behavior like hitting; at the same time, though, it's easier to draw a clear line with that sort of universally unacceptable behavior.

I'm kind of curious as to other people's experiences here. If your kids were/are really physically affectionate, did they learn appropriate boundaries over time? When and how did you talk to them about it? Pacey is such a compassionate kid, quick to offer comfort to his peers and I don't want to squelch that tendency.


Kerri said...

Allie my "easy" child is still a hugger at 9. She hugs her friends, her teachers, her riding instructor. You name it she hugs them! Boo is the extreme she hugs patrons at the supermarket. I have found that most don't mind. It's like their only source of affection in a hard day. So I say let Pacey hug. And if people have an issue use Allie's line BOO IS SPECIAL NEEDS GET OVER IT:)

Heather said...

Oh man..what a tough thing to tackle. I'm a hugger/toucher too and so are my kids but I can see at in Scorch's 1st grade that some kids are growing out of that and it makes me a little sad.

Can Pacey verbally ask people if they want a hug and then go from there? Maybe practice some role playing at home where he has to ask you/Chris/B if they want a hug and you can tell him occasionally no. Obviously you don't want to do that all the time- I mean, who wants to turn down hugs?!- but I think you're right that there is a time and a place.

This may be a good time to start on this regardless before the baby comes. If he's anything like 99% of the kids I know, he's going to want to pick up the baby/carry the baby/love up on the baby to the extreme!

We're working on that with Scorch right now. When it's time to go/do something/etc- it's NOT time for hugs. I tell him that I love him very much but we'll hold off on the hugs until he's done brushing his teeth (tying his shoes, putting the hot pan down, etc). I'm also starting to working with him on no meaning no. So if the Bean doesn't want a hug, don't hug her (she's not nearly the cuddle bug he is). If a friend says to stop touching them, knock it off and on and on. Let me know if you hit on a perfect solution!