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Miss Conduct

Advice: At family gatherings, do kids have to give hugs and kisses?

Some parents force their children to be affectionate with near strangers, which is awkward for everyone.

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At family gatherings and other events, I find that kids are often not super-pumped to hug a bunch of near-strangers. I am big into teaching kids about basic consent and bodily autonomy. But I also don’t want to get into it with parents who are scolding their kids into hugging Auntie Moi. Any ideas for balancing parents’ ideas of politeness with children’s right to not be forced to hug me?

M.P. / Somerville

You get the first Miss Conduct Seal of Approval for 2019 for your combination of principles and practicality. You are right that children should not be made to hug people when they don’t want to — and also that any kid who is temperamentally or temporarily shy enough not to want to hug their Auntie Em sure as heck doesn’t want to become Exhibit A in a noisome debate, either.

So have a few noninvasive alternatives at hand that will satisfy the parent’s need for a physical show of greeting. Something like, “I’ve had enough hugs today anyway, how about a double-elbow bump instead?” High-fives, fist bumps, air kisses, bows, and curtseys also make good choices. Tack on “That’s always good when you don’t feel like hugging!” and you might give the kid a social tool to use in the future, too. Tag and release the child, and then have the conversation with the parent, if you’re so inclined.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Girl Scouts, and plenty of other organizations are with you on this. Children should be taught from an early age that no one has the right to insist on physical affection from them or force it on them. It may seem strange at first to those of us who — like me! — weren’t raised this way. Some people get defensive, like you’re calling Grandma a child abuser for wanting a hug and kiss. But it’s not about Grandma, it’s about children getting a chance to practice the social skill of physical boundary-setting in a safe environment. (Grandma can help by responding to “I don’t feel like hugging” with “Sometimes I don’t either! Thank you for being honest with me. I love you.”)

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Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.