2016-05-31

No, You Can't Have A Hug

I.

We were out with a big group of extended family, and eventually people started asking my daughter for hugs. Not "good-bye hugs," just hugs for no reason at all.

In its own right, this request upsets me. When small children feel relaxed and reasonably safe, they will do anything you tell them to do. This is the power of the trust they give you. Asking them to perform acts of cuteness on command, purely for your own personal entertainment, is an abuse of that power. Asking them to perform acts of emotional intimacy purely for your own personal entertainment is an abuse of the trust. I was among family, so I allowed it, but when the request came for a kiss, I put an end to it.

Someone asked why, and my wife explained that children shouldn't have to feel obligated to give hugs and kisses - and I agree. However, I added: If we were to make a routine of having her give out hugs and kisses, and then (god forbid) an adult ever tried to sexually abuse her, she'd have no idea where to draw the line. By abusing her trust, I would have left her physically and emotionally defenseless.

II.

Like so many other human relationships, the parent-child bond is made almost entirely of trust. It has to be, since small children are entirely reliant on their caretakers. As the first weeks and months of life unfold, they learn to trust us by virtue of the fact that we can be counted on to provide for them physically and emotionally. We parents help, and we do it consistently and reliably. This forms the foundation for our children's trusting us: If parents give them food, then it must be okay to eat it, if parents introduce them to people, then those people must be friendly, if parents take them somewhere, then it must be an okay place to go, if parents teach them something, then there must be value in that knowledge. If children didn't trust us to provide them with positive, safe, and relevant experiences, they would become basket-cases.

That's why it bothers me when I see videos of parents feeding their infants and toddlers lemons. We all know what will happen when the child tastes the lemon for the first time: s/he will make a surprised face, the parents will think the face is cute, onlookers will get a good laugh at it. There's just one question left to ask: What about the kid?

It might seem harmless, but on the other hand, such parents have now given their children a reason to second-guess their parents. The lesson is, "I can't always trust that what my parents will give me won't turn out to be an intolerably sour and acidic thing." The bond of trust is reduced just a little bit. When all we're getting out of this is some cute video footage, it just strikes me as being selfish. Wouldn't it be better for your child to know that not only are you looking after his/her best interests, but you're also keeping a high price on that trust; you won't sell it out for something as trivial as a good photo op?

If I feel this way about making a toddler taste a lemon, you can imagine how I feel about the many more elaborate versions of this, such as the Santa Claus lie. Teaching our children to genuinely believe in elaborate hoaxes, just so their parents can proclaim that the children's naivete is "cute," teaches them only to disbelieve their parents.

There is seemingly no end to the list of things some parents are willing to lie about: monsters, ghosts, elves, magic, anthropomorphism, and so on. Some mistakenly believe that this is how they instill in their children a rich and active imagination. But no, this merely forces the child to do extra work figuring out the difference between belief and the suspension of disbelief. Instead of telling a story about an imaginary character named Santa Claus, in which a child could safely fantasize and let her imagination run wild, the parents stamp out the imagination component of the process by simply duping her.

III.

This is lunacy. If we want our children to value our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and advice, then we ought to commit to building a strong foundation of trust within the relationship. You might not get everything right, but it's not impossible to simply agree not to knowingly get things wrong.

As children age, they're bound to challenge every thought that occurs to us. Not only is that a wonderful and important developmental process for them, it is also a spectacular learning opportunity for us, since they might ask questions or wonder about things we haven't considered before. If so, we'll want to be forthcoming about that, too, so that our children learn a few additional life lessons, such as:
  1. Not every thought or belief withstands close scrutiny.
  2. It's okay to be wrong, as long as I'm open-minded about the truth and willing to accept it when I see it.
  3. Sometimes kids can be right, too, and if so, my parents will love and respect me for the knowledge I bring with me.
  4. Even when my parents are wrong, they are acting in good faith, subject to the knowledge that they have.

All this, without fostering a general sense of distrust. I won't always be correct about every single thing I tell my daughter, but it's important to me that she at least trust that I'm not trying to pull the wool over her eyes.

Nor should she ever feel that I'd tell her something just so that I had an excuse to observe her "being cute." I already think she's cute. She doesn't have to give strangers hugs or be duped into believing in a magical flying santa-god in order to look cute to me. She's cute when she learns to jump and then practices to get it right. She's cute when she discovers a new word and tries to use it often. She's cute when she expresses affection to me and others voluntarily. She's cute when she asks me to take her to the park, because she knows that as long as there isn't another, prior commitment, I am happy to oblige. And I don't need to feed her a lemon in order to watch her occasionally recoil from a food she doesn't like.

This is all in service of a trusting bond between us. I can't teach her things if she's skeptical of each lesson, and I can't keep her safe if she doesn't trust me to take care of her. Nor can I teach her the right way to be skeptical if I give her reason to believe her own parents are disingenuous. Healthy skepticism comes from evaluating good-faith information on its own merits, but a latent distrust of all claims made even by one's closest relations isn't skepticism. It's cynicism. That's the last thing I'd want to encourage in her.