176. Hugs

Our culture is quite ambivalent about hugs, and about physical contact in general. I suppose the ambivalence is partly due to our cultural diversity. We are influenced by some cultures that are full of hugs, and by others that hardly hug at all. Because culture is part of who we are, it’s possible to develop close friendships without knowing at what point, if ever, it’s okay to hug. Sooner or later, with good communication, the issue should come up, or body language should make it clear that it’s not an issue, but it’s surprising how deep a friendship can become before there are any hugs or any attempts to deal with the issue.
Teaching young children nowadays adds another aspect to the issue. With reports of sexual abuse of children by adults, many teachers are careful not to touch children. As a teacher, I have always tried to be available for hugs without soliciting them. Some children have hugged me,
and I’ve hugged back. I’ve often felt like hugging a child, after an incident when the child did or said something endearing, but I almost always used words to express my feelings; I left it up to the child to initiate a hug.
With children, as with adults, culture is a factor, and I noticed clear differences in the number of hugs, depending on geography. When I taught in Acton, Massachusetts, there weren’t many hugs. In Monroe, New York, most children hugged most teachers. In Wellesley, hugs were quite rare,
but that may also have been due to the time; by the time I taught in Wellesley, abuse had surfaced as an issue.
We are not only products of our cultures; we are also individuals. Some children, regardless of the cultural norms they grew up with, want or don’t want to hug and be hugged. Some are
tactilely defensive, and are very uncomfortable about any physical contact. Some are quite the opposite, and seem to need lots of hugs.
We like to have rules of thumb. We like to be able to know what to do in any situation. But this subject, like many others, does not lend itself to any rules of thumb. Your friend may be wondering why you seem so physically distant and yet so personally close. Or maybe your friend wishes you wouldn’t be so physical about your affection. You may also have strong feelings about all this.
With adults so ambivalent about physical contact, it’s got to be confusing for some children, too. I think it’s important to pay close attention to children, and make sure they somehow get the right message about how much we care for them. Adults, too. And that message may or may not be effectively delivered by a hug.

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