It is very common that one of the steps of acculturating the little ones in the house (that is, making them internalize the culture in which they live and the way they deal with the people around them) involves a ritual: that of giving kisses to friends and family of their parents.
Thus, in casual encounters on the street or during the Christmas holidays, it usually happens that many parents force their young children to greet, kiss or hug people that the latter find unfamiliar or intimidating. However, from a psychological (and even ethical) perspective this is not correct.
Respecting the living space of the little ones
Although we may not realize it, all of us have a vital space around us that accompanies us and that acts as an intermediate point between our body and everything else. That is to say, these small invisible bubbles that surround us are almost another extension of us., in the sense that they offer us a space of security, something that belongs to us and that plays a role in our well-being. This phenomenon is well documented and It 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 vital space means and we act accordingly. Not wanting to get closer than you should to people who at the moment do not inspire trust is not a psychological deformation. That it should be corrected is a cultural expression as valid as the one that prevents adults from hugging strangers.
So… why force them to give kisses or hugs?
That some fathers and mothers force their sons and daughters to greet by hugging or kissing is not in itself part of an essential teaching to create young people with the capacity for autonomy: it is part of a ritual to look good, in which the comfort and dignity of the little one is secondary. A ritual that generates discomfort and anxiety.
No one learns to socialize by being forced to do those things. In fact, these kinds of experiences may give you more reasons to distance yourself from people who are not part of your immediate family circle. You learn to socialize by observing how others act and imitating them when and how you want, being the one who has control of the situation. This is called vicarious learning, and in this case it means that, over time, you end up seeing that everyone else greets strangers and that it is not a risk if the parents are present. The action comes later.
The best thing is to leave them free
It is clear that in childhood parents and guardians must reserve the ability to have the final say in what the little ones do, but that does not mean that they have to be forced to carry out the most insignificant and unimportant acts. The rules must be well justified so that they go in favor of the well-being of the boy or girl.
It is worth taking young children’s preferences into account and, if they do not cause problems, letting them make their own decisions freely. Make them enter the world of rigid adult social norms through force is not a good solution, and doing so means sending the message that the only valid behavioral options are those dictated by parents.
Ultimately, children are much more than unfinished adults: they are human beings with rights and whose dignity deserves to be taken into account. Not doing so during the early stages of someone’s life is setting a bad precedent.