Don’t force young girls to hug their relatives, the Girl Scouts say

–Screenshot / http://www.girlscouts.org/

When relatives and guests make an appearance this holiday season, do not force your daughters to hug them. That’s the latest advice from the Girl Scouts of the USA.

“Have you ever insisted, ‘Uncle just got here — go give him a big hug!’ or ‘Auntie gave you that nice toy, go give her a kiss,’ when you were worried your child might not offer affection on her own?” the organization said in a post published this month that drew considerable reaction and, in some cases, backlash. “If yes, you might want to reconsider the urge to do that in the future.”

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“Think of it this way, telling your child that she owes someone a hug either just because she hasn’t seen this person in a while or because they gave her a gift can set the stage for her questioning whether she ‘owes’ another person any type of physical affection when they’ve bought her dinner or done something else seemingly nice for her later in life.”

Not everyone appreciated the advice.

On the Girl Scouts Facebook page, the hugs advice post was shared more than 7,000 times and it generated hundreds of comments.

“No girl is going to seriously think she has to get physical with a guy to be polite, just because she had to give Aunt Betty a hug at Christmas when she was little,” said one reader, Angelique McKowan.

Another parent, Jennifer Davis-Batista, wrote: “If an adult is seriously offended by a CHILD not feeling comfortable with a hug, they need to grow up. Of course we all want our kids to be loving and kind. But doing something that doesn’t feel right to them just because an adult wants you to is wrong.”

The Girl Scouts said that its advice on opting out of hugs was not meant to be portrayed as a “license to be rude.” But it emphasized that there were ways other than physical contact to show gratitude and love.

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“Saying how much she’s missed someone or thank you with a smile, a high-five, or even an air kiss are all ways she can express herself, and it’s important that she knows she gets to choose which feels most comfortable to her,” it said.

At what age should consent be taught?

The Girl Scouts regularly publishes statements and blog posts on its website about topics that might interest girls in their development as future leaders, from the importance of voting to how to recover from natural disasters.

The post about hugging was published in the section that includes advice to parents and families about current events and was intended to highlight the need to teach children about genuine affection and consent early in life. The organization said in an emailed statement on Wednesday such events include the recent news stories about sexual harassment that have risen in national discussion.

The post had outsize reach, generating interest far beyond the organization’s membership of more than 1.8 million girls and their families.

The “Today” show started an online poll Wednesday, asking respondents whether they agreed with the Girl Scouts’ “stance on hugging.” The poll generated more than 3,000 votes by noon and continued through the day.

On social media, the hugs post was widely shared. Some readers wondered how the conversation would play out across a diverse culture of Americans, suggesting that some ethnic groups are believed to be more emotionally demonstrative.

The Girl Scouts pushed back on criticism.

In the emailed statement Wednesday, the Girl Scouts responded to some of the criticism: “Obviously, our advice will not apply in all situations, and we recognize that parents and caregivers are in the best position to judge which conversations they should have with their girls.”

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Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, the Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist, said in the post that it was never too early to start the conversation about consent with girls.

“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” she said.

“But the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime,” she added, “and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.”

“Plus, sadly, we know that some adults prey on children, and teaching your daughter about consent early on can help her understand her rights, know when lines are being crossed, and when to go to you for help,” she said.

The gist, the Girl Scouts added, was that girls need to be given the space to decide when and how they want to show affection. “Of course, many children may naturally want to hug and kiss family members, friends, and neighbors, and that’s lovely — but if your daughter is reticent, don’t force her,” the organization said.

But Sharon Lamb, a professor of counseling and school psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said in an interview that the Girl Scouts’ advice might be expecting too much of young children.

“There is a little bit of pushing kids to taking care of themselves and set their own boundaries,” Lamb said.

She said that having a general no-hugs policy could remove an opportunity for parents to find out whether there are deeper meanings to a child’s hesitation.

“Coming with up a rule should not take the place of figuring out what’s up with your child, and whether that child is just shy and doesn’t like hugs, or whether they don’t like this relative, or something else is going on,” Lamb said.