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Deciding when to hug men and boys

“Get a game before bedtime,” she said, while I cleared the table. It was snowing outside, dark by dinnertime.  

Her five-year-old son slid from his seat, his bare feet slapping the floor, exclaiming, “Family game night!”

He stopped, mid-step, as he headed to the shelf filled with games about penguins and sneaky, snacky squirrels. “Is it still family game night if David is here?”

I melted. I wanted very much for the answer to be “yes.”

Dating is harder when you are joining a family, a mother and children. Falling in love is easy when you are both in college. My first wife only needed to fall for me (and I for her). Dating women with children has me reflecting on my own childhood as well as the childhood of the children that might be in my future.

Today, one in four children is raised by a single mom, and 44 percent of the women who date online are single moms. Dating isn’t just about falling in love with each other. It’s about negotiating my library and her children. (My books don’t need cereal and milk while they watch Paw Patrol, but they do take up a lot of space.)

Another difference between books and children: My books don’t remember who reads them.  When I lend my books to friends and family, my books never remember who turned their pages or who spilled some juice on their binding. But children remember the men who pass through their lives.  

My mother was single and I remember the names of the men she dated. Only one of these men (Hi Tom!) remains part of my life today, a phone call or letter every year. So I’m cautious. I want to be the man who remains in these children’s lives, too.  

Psychotherapist David Richo divides the love we all need (children and adults alike) into dimensions of “attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing.” If we love our children, we need to attend to them, giving them the gift of our eyes and ears. We need to both accept them for who they are and appreciate what is unique and wonderful about them.  We need to show them affection. And we need to allow them to be and to become whomever they want to be.

Of those five dimensions, I struggle with affection. Joanna Schroeder of the “Babble” website tells us that making kids kiss or hug a visitor goodbye teaches them that consent doesn’t matter. It perpetuates rape culture. Schroeder tells us to “offer alternatives by saying something like, “Would you rather give Grandma a high-five or blow her a kiss, maybe?” The child decides the level of affection they will offer.

When I was a kid, holidays were about middle-aged women leaving lipstick on a squirming boy, laughing at what a ladykiller he would grow up to be. But I never hugged my grandfather. I can’t remember why. Had I decided that boys don’t hug, and so I never hugged him? Did he decide that men don’t hug, and so he never hugged me? Why didn’t we ever talk about this?

Grandpa is 30 years dead. I’m still thinking about how men show affection. I was walking Upper Chester with a friend. When we got back to his home, I realized that I wouldn’t see him again until he returned from business in South America. That kind of distance feels like a moment for a hug. I shook his right hand with my right hand while I pulled him close with my left arm. Our shoulders come together, but our torsos are separate. I announced that I was doing the awkward man-hug, the one which keeps your hips from touching because your hands are interlocked between. So awkward.

There may be a day, someday, when I will be an organic part of family game night. I’m preparing.  I’m learning how to show love to the men and the boys, really to everyone in my life. I think the boys need to know that men can love them and men need to know that we can love each other. If we do, we might love the women in our lives better, too.

David Beard

David Beard is associate professor of rhetoric and director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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