My Greek migrant parents had three wishes for me. The first was to marry a good Greek girl. Tick. The second was to find a career that was easy to explain in one sentence. Tick. Lastly (and most importantly) they wished really hard that they would get free-flowing, unconditional hugs from their granddaughter.
Right now, my two-year-old daughter Sia only has hugs for my wife, me and my wife’s mother.
After years of disappointing my parents with poor career and relationship choices, I thought Sia’s arrival would bring an end to the grief. That having a cute granddaughter they could smother with affection would finally return me to the favourite son slot.
But Sia’s lack of hugs means I am back where I started. My parents are furious at what they see as a lack of respect, and they don’t blame my daughter. Instead, they have been admonishing their first born (yet again) for being a bad parent, because they believe I have taught my daughter this behaviour. That I have been committing the sin of sins, and have turned my daughter into a ‘hug dodger’.
You see, my daughter doesn’t give out hugs for free. She makes you earn them by spending quality time with her.
You see, my daughter doesn’t give out hugs for free. She makes you earn them by spending quality time with her. Her Greek grandparents, however, just don’t get this. They want hugs and kisses on demand.
Recently when we took Sia to her two yearly medical check-up, one particular grandparent (who shall not be named) asked us to speak to the doctor about the lack of hugs. When this unnamed father-in-law asked me what the doctor said, I told him that the advice was, “Stop being so desperate — maybe then Sia will give you a hug.”
My mother-in-law is the only one who gets it. She doesn’t go straight in for the bear hug. She gets down to my daughter’s level. She spends time with Sia first. She plays with her toys on the floor. She makes up games and pulls silly faces and as a result, her efforts are reciprocated with hugs from my daughter.
In contrast, my own parents are so desperate for hugs that they act like oxytocin addicts in need of a hit. They have started bribing Sia with $20 notes. But my daughter doesn’t care for their cash.
After my father gets rejected by my daughter, he tells me that when I was her age I used to love giving hugs to everyone. But one thing my dad doesn’t know is that as an adult, I am no longer a hugger.
All those years of being made to hug and double-cheek kiss so many of my relatives and family friends at church have made me wary of affection. I don’t like people touching me. So just like Sia, I’m a hug dodger. It’s no fun being in our shoes, either. You can see the offence in people’s eyes when you give them a ‘hey’ and walk off.
Before I had my daughter, I used to laugh whenever I come across stories about how today’s parents are teaching their toddlers to have greater agency and free will about hugging and physical affection.
I thought it was modern child-rearing bullshit. That it was just fear mongering. But when I became a parent, things changed. When I saw family members try to pick Sia up without her consent and how upsetting it was for her, all my childhood experiences came flooding back.
So I looked into the effect of forced hugs and the internet is full of articles with headlines like ‘Why You Should Never Make Your Child Hug Anyone’. These stories usually state two main reasons why you shouldn’t force your child to show affection. First, if you force them to hug, they get the message that they are not in control of their own body. Secondly, by starting consent lessons early, it will help your kids define boundaries and express themselves in their relationships now and as they get older.
For me, the scariest implication is that kids who are coerced into to hugging might think they need to comply with adult requests for affection, and are more likely to be sexually abused.
For me, the scariest implication is that kids who are coerced into to hugging might think they need to comply with adult requests for affection, and are more likely to be sexually abused. Who would’ve thought that an innocent hug could turn out to be so deadly?
My attitude is that I don’t want to be a hug extremist. So I’ve been trying to find a way to please both factions of my family.
My brother-in-law (who isn’t as desperate as my parents but is still not getting Sia’s hugs) came up with a novel idea. He recommended that whenever we go over their place that we give each other massive hugs, so Sia might model our behaviour. It sounds better than forcing hugs — but then I would have to start hugging.
To be honest, I am happy that my daughter makes you earn her affection. I like her stubbornness. I like the fact that she has created these boundaries around her body. There are no exceptions. Not even for me.
This means hours spent at the park, reading books with the skills of a trained theatre actor. It means drawing endless rainbows, building giant Lego towers, dancing to punk songs with her and pretending I am a lion that is going to eat her fingers and feet.
As a parent I’m still torn between this new way of thinking, of letting kids decide whether they want to give out hugs and kisses for themselves; and having my daughter show kindness and respect to her immediate family. I think you can have a healthy mixture of both. But all these affections junkies in our family should know that our hugs don’t come for free.