My children have reaped the benefits of attending Vacation Bible Schools over the summer. My son usually has a great time learning the songs, dances and various Bible stories. He acts like he is living his best life when they have great snacks. At one event he informed me that he did not like his teacher. I dug a little deeper. He expressed discomfort when his teacher attempted to hug him, but otherwise had a great time. In the past we discussed letting people know (family included) his preferred form of affection, and I reminded him that he absolutely did not have to hug anyone if he did not want to.
The next morning, I brought my children in and observed the teachers interacting with the students. It seemed to be the norm for members to greet each other with hugs. I walked my son over to his group, and his teacher leaned in for a hug. My son dodged her like a tiny Deion Sanders, walked right to his seat, and started chatting with his friends. I explained to her that my son doesn’t give hugs but he is fine with a handshake or high-five. At pick-up I noticed her giving hugs to other students on their way out. She tried to hug my son again. She looked at me and caught herself….I reminded her again that my son doesn’t give hugs. After talking a bit more about his comfort level, he explained that he wanted to return the next day. There were no more issues, and he had a great time that week. With my encouragement he was comfortable enough to verbalize what worked best for him.
I thought about this topic for a while before putting pen to paper. I grew up in a home where I often felt powerless and not in control of my person. Children in my home weren’t asked, “May I hug you?” or “May I touch you?” Instead the language was: “Come give me a hug.” “Go give your uncle a hug.” There was no choice, and this normalized. Until I was in my teens, I was not aware that I had a choice to hug or not to hug….even when there were people I just did not want in my space.
A few years back, we attended a funeral in my husband’s hometown. The introvert in me was on high alert due to the number of people in attendance, all of the introductions, and my children’s energy levels. During the repast, my mother-in-law introduced me and the children to a family friend. I reached my hand out to shake her hand. The woman looked at my hand and then looked me in the eye and said, “We give hugs here.” As she reached out, I cringed inside, but I still embraced this friend of my mother in law in order to be polite. Again, it was the norm in this church and community to greet by hugging. I am an adult and even though this was a slightly uncomfortable situation for me, I made the CHOICE to embrace this woman.
In the back of my mind, I quietly analyzed this situation as the day went on. I later considered my son’s experience. What happens in the mind and heart of a little person in a situation like this? What happens when we take away the choice?
It is important for us to recognize that children should be able to control what happens within their personal space and who they invite in versus being TOLD what to do with their personal space.
At the host church for VBS it was the norm to greet someone with an embrace. But what happens if a child does not come from a home, church, or community where this is the usual?
It is necessary for church workers, teachers, and volunteers to consider this when implementing children’s programming. When there are tiny guests in our churches for these programs, not everyone comes from the same background. I believe parents should empower their children to advocate for themselves, even at the risk of venturing outside of the norm. How do we protect our children from feeling powerless in potentially uncomfortable situations if we do not give them the power to say, “I don’t want to hug you.”?
Where is the line between teaching our children to be polite while empowering them to choose what is best for their sense of well-being? As a parent, it is easy for me to feel a sense of embarrassment when one of my children is rude to someone. I shut this embarrassment down when I have to choose between being “polite” (peep my air quotes) at the risk of my kid’s discomfort due to someone encroaching on his personal space.
Don’t touch my kid.
Ask before hugging.
Do not assume that my child wants you in his space.
Just like we as adults desire respect from those around us we should give that same respect to our children as well.