It is very common that one of the steps to acculturate the youngest in the house (that is, to make them internalize the culture in which they live and the treatment of the people around them) goes through a ritual: that of giving kisses to friends and relatives of their parents .

Thus, in casual encounters in the street or during the Christmas holidays, it often happens that many parents force their young children to greet, kiss or hug people who are unknown or intimidating to them. However, from a psychological (and even ethical) perspective this is not correct.

Respecting children’s living space

Even if we don’t realize it, all people have a living space around them that accompanies them and acts as a halfway point between their body and everything else. That is, these small invisible bubbles that surround us are almost an extension of us , in the sense that they offer us a space of security, something that belongs to us and that has a role in our well-being. This phenomenon is well documented and is studied by a discipline called proxemics .

Childhood may be one of the stages of life in which psychological functions are half done, but the truth is that from a very young age we understand what that living space means and act accordingly. Not wanting to get closer than we should to people who for the moment do not produce confidence is not a psychological deformation that should be corrected, it is a cultural expression as valid as the one that makes adults not embrace strangers.

So… why force them to give kisses or hugs?

The fact that some parents force their sons and daughters to say hello by hugging or kissing is not in itself an indispensable teaching for creating young people with the capacity for autonomy: it is part of a ritual to look good, in which the comfort and dignity of the child is secondary . A ritual that generates discomfort and anxiety for them.

No one learns to socialize by being forced to do these things. In fact, these kinds of experiences may give more reason to stay away from people who are not part of the immediate family circle. Socializing is learned by observing how others act and imitating them when and how you want, being in control of the situation yourself. This is called vicarious learning, and in this case it means that, in time, you end up seeing that everyone else greets strangers and that this does not pose a risk if the parents are present. The action comes later.

The best thing is to let them be free

Of course, in childhood, parents and guardians should reserve the right to have the last word in what the youngest do, but that does not mean that they should be forced to perform the most insignificant and unimportant acts. The rules must be well justified so that they are in favour of the child’s well-being.

It is worth taking into account the preferences of young children and, if they do not cause problems, letting them make their own decisions freely. Getting them into the world of rigid adult social norms through force is not a good solution, and doing so means giving the message that the only valid behavioural choices are those dictated by parents.

In the end, children are much more than unfinished adults: they are human beings with rights and whose dignity deserves to be taken into account. Failure to do so during the early stages of someone’s life sets a bad precedent.