Hugs are Good

I love it when experts announce (or repeat) what we in the Montessori community have known all along. It happened this week again on NPR. In a piece aired last Monday (I missed it but I get the weekly roll up in an email) the reporter announced this: “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.”

Not relying exclusively on unnamed developmental pediatricians, the reporter also cited the Girl Scouts, who “published a parenting-advice article on the subject, titled: ‘Reminder: She Doesn't Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays’.”

The practice of not asking a child to show affection may be as old as the Montessori Method itself. Giving respect to the child is at the foundation of our method, and if an adult asks a child to give a hug, or simply sweeps the child up in loving arms it may violate the child’s wish. Instead, when we see a child who looks distressed we ask if the child needs a hug. This happens to me several times a week, and about half the time the child declines. What does that suggest to those of us who say (or command, with all good intentions), “come here and give me a hug”? My answer would be that about half the time the hug is not sincere, and if this my suspicion even close to accurate we’re sending a message to the child that encourages deception in intimacy.

Does it matter if the adult needs a hug? Absolutely not! Seeking a hug from a child to soothe an adult hurt is as bad as expecting a child to reverse roles and take care of an adult in general. Does it matter that a sweet grandma wants to show affection for a grandchild she doesn’t get to see often enough? Absolutely not! Children are not here to meet the needs of adults—it’s the other way around, and it breaks my heart when I see adults—parents included—who fail to act on this basic premise.

But what about when a child asks for a hug or spontaneously hugs an adult? Return in happily! It’s not only gratifying, it’s also a good example for the child to follow and builds a firmer rapport, even if the child doesn’t realize that she’s been shown respect at the moment.

Reading back over this piece it strikes me that the reader may think I’m cold-hearted or don’t understand. (I’m glad I haven’t published this before having a chance to explain.) I have seven grandchildren whom I see too infrequently (they all live on the west coast). And when I have a chance to fly out there, I’m delighted to see how much they’ve grown. They usually run to hug me (ok, not the 13-year old any more) and I return the hug gratefully. But every now and then one of them will be in a shy stage so I refrain out of respect for that little one. Sometimes it takes a few hours before, seeing the example of their siblings, they join in and all is well. My main point is not a proposal that we withhold affection, but rather that we show it in the context of respect for the child.

Here is the link to the original article from National Public Radio:

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