My twins love hugs, which is great, because their mother is a touchy-feely, in-your-face Jewess with no sense of personal boundaries. From the day my son and daughter were born, I was all up in their grill, and now that they are 6, I still hug and kiss them on the regular. For me, our physical closeness is a natural expression of the warm relationship we share. I know it’s not like that for everyone; I’m sure there are plenty of non-demonstrative parents who no doubt love their kids. I’m sure it’s possible to love your kids without constantly squeezing and tickling them — I just don’t know how to do it.
For my daughter, big hugs are a truly essential part of life; she has autism and craves the sensory input of firm pressure. My son is also a hugger, and hugs are integral to the social connection he shares with friends. When we used to live in Brooklyn, we’d run into a friend of his on the street, and they’d run up to each other and embrace (and possibly pretend to act like cats for some reason). From an early age, physical touch has been a part of his social currency.
But after we moved to New Jersey, my son got the startling news that his spontaneous embraces were not so welcomed by many of his classmates.
His wonderful teacher spoke to me about the issue of personal space, confiding that she too considers herself a hugger. But the kids didn’t know what to make of my son’s hands-on approach to friendship. As a stopgap, his teacher told him to imagine a giant Hula-Hoop of personal space surrounding his body and the bodies of his friends. Whenever he needed a reminder to back off, she’d simply say, “Hula-Hoop.”
While I appreciated her gentle reminders and the importance of consent and personal space, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I thought of the times in my life when I’d crossed the Hula-Hoop boundaries myself. For example, even if I’ve just been introduced to you, if I’m hugging the rest of my friends goodbye, chances are I’ll throw in a hug for you too. In fact, I’ve done this and seen a stranger’s eyes suddenly light up with warmth. In my opinion — and in my life — hugging isn’t something that needs to be held back. Doesn’t the world need more hugs?
I was ready to throw that proverbial Hula-Hoop out the window until one afternoon when I saw my son run up to a new friend and throw his arms around him. The other boy did not hug back; in fact, he seemed put off by my son’s sudden and totally gleeful embrace. “Damn,” I thought. “Maybe we need that Hula-Hoop after all.”
Later that afternoon, I reiterated to my son what his teacher had told him about personal space. “Some people just aren’t huggers,” I said.
In the moment, it felt like the right thing to tell him. After all, he’s getting older, and he needs to fully understand the concept of consent — as well as social cues and how to read his peers’ body language. He already understands that his body is his own and that he needs to be respectful of the bodies of others.
But then again, I think about how some of the best moments in my life have been when a friend unexpectedly hugged me or held my hand. Hugs have been proven to reduce illness, stress, anxiety and loneliness (seriously there’s scientific shit to back that up — specifically, a 2015 Carnegie Mellon University study).
A few weeks ago, I was at my uncle’s funeral. My dad’s death was less than two years ago, and the loss of his older brother reopened the pain for me. At the funeral, my cousin’s husband approached me, my mom and my sister. And without asking permission, he hugged us — really hugged us. And it was the best thing, perhaps the only thing in that moment that could have possibly made us feel better.
I want my little guy to be like this — to be the guy who knows when crossing that social boundary is the right thing. My family isn’t the type of family who waves at you from across the room or awkwardly pats you on the back; we hug. So what if a few people squirm along the way? In a world that’s increasingly isolated, where life is lived on a phone screen, we’ll be the ones to hold and to squeeze — to say, “This is real, and I am here and we are in this together” and bring you into our circles.
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