Written by Jack Cheng for Brain, Child Magazine
My 10-year-old son can be a train wreck.
I know it's not his fault. His limbs are growing faster than he knows, and his brain is all over the place, from the world of Minecraft to the Marvel Comics Superhero Universe to the Greek gods of the Percy Jackson-verse. Still, excuses aside, he's simply not that cognizant of his own body.
When he walks down the hall, I cringe, worried that he'll knock over framed photos hanging on the walls.
When he wobbled his bike down a path through the park, I winced as he passed pedestrians, afraid that he would ride into them.
And he hardly ever seems to walk by his little sister without bumping into her, sometimes jostling her playfully, sometimes just knocking her over.
"What's wrong with him?" my wife and I would ask each other, after sending him to his room for a body checking infraction.
It took a while, but I think I figured out what was wrong, why he had an incessant need to bump into things, consciously or not. My wife always suggests exercise: "A tired kid is a good kid" is one of her mottos (which, I'll note, she adapted from something she heard in a dog obedience course). Another dad at soccer practice was telling me his son needed tackle football -- that boys this age just needed to run into each other and get some of that energy out. I think my wife and this dad were on to something, but I think there's something beyond just physical activity.
I thought back to wrestling with my son as a toddler. It seemed both recent and long ago that I would lift him above my bed, throw him onto the mattress and shout "Body slam!" while smothering his body with my own. It's been a few years since we'd played like that. And that's when I realized:
He needed a hug.
Part of the reason it took me so long to understand is my experience of my own family. I never doubted that my parents or my sisters loved me, but I also remember how bizarre it seemed the first time I saw my parents holding hands. This is a clear memory since I was probably about 16 at the time. They are fairly traditional Chinese people who are not into public displays of affection.
I wasn't sure my son would admit he wanted to be hugged, but I tested my theory. The next time he bumped his sister, I got reflexively mad again, but I kept my temper in check and took a deep breath. "Come over here," I commanded, and then, to his surprise, I gave him a big squeeze. He returned the gesture and, after a minute, it seemed to make him feel better. He may have just been relieved that he wasn't getting punished.
Just like anyone, I know my son needs physical affection. The trouble is, he's a 10-year-old boy and doesn't know where to get it. His sister hugs all her friends, even hugs her teachers goodbye, but he and his buddies don't embrace. They race side by side, they climb trees, they sit next to each other playing video games but they get embarrassed when they touch. Once after a brief falling out with a friend, I told my son and his pal to shake hands and I could sense that the physical act was as awkward as the apology.
He's getting big, and heavy, and frankly, has a bony butt, so sitting on his parents' laps has long been a rare occasion. He doesn't hug his sister, but left to their own devices, their games often involve piggyback rides or feats of dual gymnastics that require grappling of some sort.
So now I hug him. I told my wife, when he's acting up, I'm going give him a hug -- the fact that he's misbehaving is my signal that he needs it.
Then, at dinner last week, I asked, a bit teasingly, "Hey, how come I hug you, but you never hug me?"
He asked me a question in response, "How come we only hug when you're mad at me?"
I was taken aback. I had figured out a transaction -- he acts up, give him a hug -- but I'm still not a particularly huggy person myself. My social engineering was totally transparent to him. In fact, it was backfiring -- he took a hug to mean that I was mad at him. The worst part was, he was right. My heart was in my throat.
"I'm not mad at you now," I said.
He came over and we held each other tight. When I let go of him, he wiped his eyes, but he assured me that that was just his allergies.
I suffer from the same allergens.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Boston, works on archaeological digs in the Middle East, plays music with the Newton Family Singers, and runs the "Daddy Bank" for his kids. Follow him on Twitter: @jakcheng