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Friday, August 15, 2014

Are Hugs Necessary?

Reader Sandee—who had asked me to comment on Tina Traster in the previous post--  was also questioning the idea that all children must be physically affectionate with their parents, or something is not right. She referred to an adoptive family in which the mother wanted the child to huge the dad, and had another child tell her that it was a good thing to do.

A hug from the right person at the right time can be a very pleasant and gratifying thing, of course. Because we know this and are concerned for others, as adults we may hug people we don’t really want to hug, or at least hug them under circumstances that don’t appeal to us. But does hugging mean we really care about someone, and does failure to hug mean we don’t?

Seems pretty unlikely--  yet some purveyors of parenting advice have made almost exactly that statement with respect to adopted children. According to them, a symptom of Reactive Attachment Disorder, the notional scourge of adopted children, is a failure to show affection on the parent’s terms. That means how, when, and where the parent elects to have an affectionate exchange. Nancy Thomas, the “foster parent educator”, has stressed that the parent need not and even should not hug a child who asks for a hug, but should insist that the child hug the parent at some future time when the parent chooses it. The child who does not comply to the parent’s satisfaction must be a little RADish (as they used to say—I haven’t seen this for a while) and is certainly not attached (i.e., obedient and grateful) to the parent; serious unconventional treatment is needed.   

Why do people like or not like to hug other people? Part of this certainly has to do with ever-changing cultural standards. Older readers will remember when hugging was pretty limited to occasional bouts with family members who had been absent for a while, or to actual or potential romantic partners. Young children got a goodnight kiss, or a kiss-to-make-it-well when needed , and had their hands held when crossing the street, but that was about it. Everybody else got handshakes, or in the case of older ladies and theatrical people, an air kiss. Graduations were formal events where principals or presidents presented diplomas and shook hands; they did not kiss all and sundry. A hug for the wrong person at the wrong time or place could give considerable offense.

Fast-forward to approximately the 1970s, where peace, love, and freewheeling pre-HIV sexuality created an atmosphere where only uptight old fuddy-duddies would fail to hug at all opportunities. It was refraining from hugging that was offensive, not doing it.

So, at which time did parents and children actually love each other? Was their affection indicated accurately by the amount of hugging? I would presume not, and I would strongly question the idea that children who do not hug when ordered don’t love their parents, or that those who do hug as ordered, do love them. I would also note the likelihood that children who come from “hugging cultures” are no different in their filial affection than those who come from “non-hugging cultures”. No, what has happened with all of them is that they have learned to comply with social rituals just as all human beings do.

It’s common for people to assume that a hug is motivated by a need to give and receive affection. Therefore, they figure, if there is no hug, there must have been no need for an affectionate exchange… and, stretching logic considerably, if you make a hug happen, you will also cause the antecedent need for affection to appear! Unfortunately, this line of thought is not only illogical but omits the possibility that a person who wants to give and receive affection may have learned ways to show love that are not hugs and perhaps not even physical acts. An enthusiastic handshake or a bow and namaste may express what a hug says for other people.

If it’s hard to think whether this is correct, just consider--  has your experience been that parents and children kiss on the lips, or not? If you are used to one in a nonsexual relationship, you probably find the other quite unnerving, yes?    

There are also some normal individual differences between people that can affect their hugging tendencies, quite independent of whether they care for someone or not. It can be perfectly normal to prefer less or more touch, just as a preference for bland or spicy food is a normal individual difference. The preference for mutual touch is to some extent different from or independent from the kind of tactile sensitivity that demands that all clothing tags be cut out upon purchase. Individual experiences based on other characteristics can also help determine touch practices; one of my sons, who as a skinny child was a great lap-sitter, got at the age of 10 one of those awful orthodontic appliances they called “headgear” and could only be kissed by his ear when he had it on--  to this day, that’s the way I kiss him and the way that feels comfortable to us. His brother, who was a lot heavier so I could not cope with him on my lap after about age 6, never had that appliance, and I kiss him much more in the middle of the cheek, as he does to me.   

Bottom line: hugging someone is not necessarily an indication of real affection for that person, nor is failing to hug a symptom of “non-attachment”. Also, making a child hug or be hugged doesn’t make the child love the huggee. If people care about each other and enjoy some of their time  together, who can ask for more? After all, the ritual is not the relationship.


  1. Agreed on all the above-- but I think the real basic problem is the unwavering belief that any human behavior always has the same meaning for any person under any circumstances, and that if you force the behavior you are also forcing the desired meaning.

  2. At a young age I asked my parents to stop hugging me. I dislike physical affection from all except a very select few.