Shrugs, Not Hugs?

25. Not realizing that toddlers who hug are taboo. Eloise isn’t too keen on adults who aren’t in her immediate familial circle, but she’s pretty friendly with other kids, albeit in a sort of, Oh—I see you have an arm, too. May I stroke it? kind of way. This happens at the local park, typically, as she doesn’t get much kid interaction otherwise, apart from the kids next door who are used to her tender ways.

It was only about a month ago, just after she turned one, that I noticed she was actually becoming interested in interacting with other children. But at the park we frequent (somewhat sporadically, actually), there tends to be a lot of tykes twice her age who have already gone through this curiosity stage that involves going up to a child she’s never seen before and either trying to hold his/her hand in the same way she grabs her elder sisters’ hands, or immediately moving in for a hug. Of course, these older kids react as though Eloise is alien. I suppose it would be worse if they reacted as if she were a terrifying clown and ran at light speed in the other direction; but actually, it feels equally disheartening as a mother to watch their little expressions say, “What the hay is wrong with you, baby? Hasn’t anyone taught you about personal space yet? My parent(s) taught me about my personal bubble.”

That’s what I’m supposed to be teaching Eloise, apparently—about her personal space bubble that might burst if someone encroaches upon it. (It seems like I should get her used to the sad fact about one’s bubble being burst, no?) I know this little gem because I looked it up on the big, scary Web after our last park visit, during which she hugged a couple children—more her own age that time—but without abandon nonetheless. I apologized to the first mother for Eloise trying to hug her little boy, who wasn’t so into the idea. That’s when the mother sweetly explained how she has been discussing “personal space issues” with her children for long time now. Oh. The other mother, whose daughter is very close in age to Eloise, didn’t seem to mind as much. She even agreed with me when I cooed over their mutual embrace and said that the world would be better if there were more hugging going on. But when the cuddle exceeded the appropriate length, the mother said, “Oooh, that’s a long hug,” and that’s when I knew I needed to do some research into what parents are thinking about baby PDAs these days.

Guess what? Well, you probably already know—but no one’s into hugging! Even among the 15-month-old set, it isn’t cute; it’s cause for alarm. If you let your kids hug freely, says the Mommaratti, they will hug any old stranger, pedophiles, pit bulls—maybe even terrorists! But really, there’s a widespread concern about it that I was completely unaware of. And before you think I’m just completely out of it or don’t get it, no, I’m not totally comfortable that Eloise is fearless when it comes to embracing children she doesn’t know. It’s sort of embarrassing, and I don’t particularly want her to touch germy kids we’ve never met. But did I think it was a Problem I needed to quickly nip in the bud? Not so much. However, after reading bulletin boards on which daycare providers confessed their annoyance with kissy, huggy toddlers, I came to realize that we are not a lovey dovey society. We don’t, as adults, kiss each other on both cheeks in this country. Perhaps Eloise fancies herself a bit European.

I even discussed this with my neighbor, whose advice with regard to kids I totally respect, and she relayed a story about how her daughter had to endure the love of “a hugger” in preschool. Poor Eloise. If I don’t do something about it, she’ll be called The Hugger at the park, and the kids will keep their distance from her, and the parents will whisper into their kids’ ears that the kids shouldn’t play with her. “We don’t like to have our bubbles burst, do we?” they’ll say. This sort of thing used to be reserved for kids who picked their noses in front of everyone and threatened to fling boogers about. (I knew that kid in elementary school, by the way.)

Does anyone have thoughts on this? I refuse to make up a story about bubbles and keeping our bubbles in tact and all that jazz. C’mon, I know kids enjoy a good analogy, but a nice, “Let’s wait until we know someone better” accompanied by a gentle nudge away should do the trick, I think. And perhaps I should scale back our pre-bedtime hug fests, during which I have Eloise hug every last toy before she departs for slumber.

Jiminy Cricket, I’m all for keeping our kids safe, and for teaching them to respect other human beings’ personal space, but I worry that in doing that, we’re teaching them to be suspicious of everyone, including kindhearted toddlers who are the only people who actually have sincere, innocent emotions. Europe, maybe.

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