© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD
Here’s a question posed from Mark: “Should I demand that my child allow me to hug him (for example, when saying good night at bedtime)?”
I wasn’t really sure at first where to go with this one. My first thought, as a parent, is “sure!” I pay the bills, I do the work, blah blah, I get the hugs! But then again, my own kids are of the huggy variety, and I really haven’t had to demand them. I more often have to pry little fingers from around my neck so a certain child will go to sleep!
Mark points out some pros and cons from both sides:
There seem to be two schools of thought on this. Some say that you must give your child the right to control their physical contact, otherwise they may become more susceptible to sexual assault; others say that kids need a certain amount of physical contact and affectionate hugs in their life (whether they think they want it or not) or else they become more prone to depression.
Considering the second point: there is some literature to support this—that children “deprived” of physical affection from parents may have a higher incidence of mental problems and poor attachment as adults. But the studies are really quite hard to interpret. For instance, what was the cause and what was the effect? Maybe these were somewhat-disturbed kids to begin with, so they had fewer hugs, and went on to have other problems as adults (this is an example of “reverse causation”.) Or maybe it’s yet another way around: the parents themselves had mental illness, so they didn’t hug their children as much—but the reason their kids are more prone to depression might be that depression runs in the family, and it has nothing at all to do with the hugs (hugs would then be an “epiphenomenon.”) Research trying to correlate childhood experiences with adult health outcomes are often very skewed by recall bias—do adults remember how often they were hugged? Or, would adults with depression maybe be more likely to mis-remember being hugged infrequently? Furthermore, assuming that the observation that fewer hugs lead to more depression, does it follow that “forced hugs” would be protective? I’m not so sure of that. There are so many assumptions here, I don’t think the “I have to force my kids to hug me to protect them from depression” angle is really something I can agree with.
What about the first point: should a child have the right to their own body integrity, allowing him to reject even loving physical attention from a parent? It sounds cold, but I guess I have to agree with that. It’s his body. No means no.
Still: a little hug is a nice way to end the day. So I’ll end this post this way: forget the science and the rules. I’d try to ask nicely, or joke around, or threaten to tickle, or otherwise add some humor to get a little squeeze in, even if Junior’s a bit resistant. At least every once in a while. After all, I pay the bills and blah blah. Dads need the hugs at least as much as the kids.