As an elementary educator, I get hugs. Lots and lots of hugs, all kinds of hugs… booger hugs, sticky hand hugs, bear hugs, jumping hugs, tearful hugs, joyous hugs and drool hugs. When I first started teaching hugs made me uncomfortable. Was it weird to hug a child that wasn’t mine? Why are our kindergartners so grabby? Should I hug them back? Why so many hugs? Despite my lack of ease with the hugging it did not cease, my students would still offer all the hugs, all the time.
During one of these hugs my mentor noticed my discomfort. I said, “You just never know when you’re going to get hugged around here, do you?” Her reply has stuck with me and I think back on it often. She replied, “I decided years ago that when a child gives me a hug I will be the last to let go.” I smiled, not thinking too much about it. She never mentioned it again but as I went about my day I thought about what she said. I have since adopted her practice of being the last to let go. I realized the impact of a hug is more than a couple second exchange, it is what children do when they are trying to express themselves.
When a child seeks a hug, they are saying so much. They might be saying I need you, I am excited, I am sorry, I trust you, I am scared, or this is fun. Who am I to deny them of this exchange of emotions? If I hug back half-heartedly I am sending a clear message that I am not available for them. I now think about what they might be dealing with at school or at home. Maybe they were left out of a game by a friend. Maybe their mom picked up an extra evening shift to make ends meet, leaving the children to have a microwave dinner and tuck themselves in bed. Maybe they are having a perfect day and want to share that happiness. The truth is I don’t know why they are looking for a hug, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the adults in their life are responsive to their needs.
Just the other day a student came up to me for a hug. This was a lice hug. As she leaned her head into my long scarf I saw a little louse scurry through her hair. My first instinct was to pull away as I stood imaging the little bug finding their way to up my scarf into my hair. But I remembered, I am the last to let go. She needed this for one reason or another. This hug lasted a bit longer than most. I examined her head and tried to clear my thoughts. When she pulled away she looked into my eyes and said, “thank you Mrs. Junge,” then bounded away. I don’t know what she was thanking me for but I know she needed that hug. Maybe I was the first adult to stay with it until she was satisfied, until she felt love. I was grateful to be the adult who chose to be the last to let go.
As a teacher, principal and mom I am the last to let go. It is my job to validate, affirm and comfort children. Even though it often leaves my dresses slimy, sticky and crawly, our children’s feelings need to be felt and our children need our arms to lift them up. What is most important to our children is that we are there for them. Being the last to let go is one easy way we can be present for the most important people in our lives.