Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Tricky Art of Teaching Socially Appropriate Behavior

There is a stereotype that people with Down syndrome are very affectionate, and in my experience, this holds true; especially as it pertains to Leanne and Josie.  I have early memories of Leanne getting lectured about NOT hugging strangers in public places.  As a young child, she would just run up to anyone waiting in line at the grocery store check out and throw her arms around their legs. 
Likewise, Josie frequently greets strangers with an emphatic "I love you!" instead of the traditional "Hi, nice to meet you".  We're talking everyone from a new speech therapist, my financial advisor, or the x-ray technician at the hospital.  Josie is also liberal with her hugs and kisses which has forced us to institute a new policy around here: We don't kiss on the lips because that's germs - ick!  I truly never know what random acquaintance Josie will plant one on next! 
So you can imagine what it's like when Josie and Leanne get together.  We're talking two people who never tire of the other's undying urge to offer heaping helpings of affection.  It's one big, cute-bordering-on-nauseating, I love you/I pray for you/Move In!/Okay!/You're so pretty/You're the best/I love you, I love you, OH I LOVE YOU hug fest!

According to Josie's Occupational Therapist, we're supposed to be teaching Josie to restrain her urge to drench affection upon everyone she encounters.  Travis' reaction: "She's only three!!!  It's cute!"  There's a part of me that agrees with him.  I find that most people relish in Leanne and Josie's lovey-dovey tendencies.  These uninhibited ladies' outpouring of love, praise, and compliments has undoubtedly made the day of many folks.
However, I know that Josie won't always be a tiny tot and she will need to learn socially appropriate behavior.  Leanne has this exercise where she holds her arms out in front of her and declares "personal space," and she remains at least an arms-length away from people.  If she forgets, we just have to utter "personal space, Leanne" and she steps back.  So where is the line between allowing Josie to express herself freely vs. teaching her to conform to social norms?  At what age and how do we teach Josie restraint? 
Truthfully, I haven't figured it out yet.  Naturally, like Travis, I'm a little biased.  But I also understand that Travis can't exactly walk into a meeting at work and greet his colleague with an emphatic "I love you!" along with a bear hug and a kiss on the lips.  So, it probably isn't okay for Josie, either. 
But even if we have to temper Josie's enthusiasm, she'll always have the open arms of Aunt Leanne to run to, and that is a beautiful thing.


  1. We started about that age trying to reinforce high fives or fist bumps for non family. Not stressing the don't hug strangers. Of course, that is about the time D came home and she was hugging anyone that moved so we had to jump in and stop it. Now at 5 both girls have stopped the random hugging. Good luck, it is totally a balance.

  2. We're right there too. Owen hugs anyone, ANYONE, without regard to whether they want it or not. He even grabs people in the pool at the Y. I understand that he is very social, but I get really embarrassed by this; it's as if I can't control my kid and I don't want people to think he's weird because he's not. So we have started doing high fives for "friends" (anyone that's not Mom and Dad). It's actually been harder for his therapists and school team to institute because they all want to love on him all the time. I get it--he knows them and they all love him. But as I've said to them--he's cute now because he's 4. Do you want him to be doing this when he's 30? I know I don't and I'm the one that's got to live with those consequences, so yeah, it's time to work hard on this behavior.

  3. We were totally there. For a LONG time. And we're *still* there sometimes. Sammi has gotten much, much better these days, but it was a definite source of concern for us. I did a post on it a while back, when we discovered that all of our lecturing really did help.
    We also talked to her teachers about it, making sure they didn't fall into the "she's so cute" trap, and that they were maintaining the appropriate distance (not because we were worried about them at all, but because we didn't want Sammi to think it was okay). It's a really tough situation to be in. And I also don't think that "stereotype" is at ALL incorrect!!

  4. The thing I've noticed about a lot of kids with Down syndrome who are very affectionate is that they really seem to FEEL that love.... unlike most of us, they don't reserve love for just family members. I've heard of some parents who teach their kids to ask, "Can I give you a hug?" or "Want a hug?" And it turns out a lot of people are happy to accept a hug, maybe they really need it that day! They say when their kids get older and the prospect of getting jobs is nearer, they can start teaching them about why hugging may not be appropriate or expected in the workplace. After all, three year olds do a lot of things that they will not be able to do when they become adults! ;)

    1. Totally agree. I was also going to suggest asking people so that both those that enjoy hugs and those that don't can be happy. I have a son that is disturbed by being touched by people other than us and he would really appreciate it if people asked first, but you'd be surprised at how often adults touch children they barely know and then even ignore the negative response. He lets people know he has a bubble around him he doesn't want them to pop whereas my daughter who NEEDS lot of hugs will ask teachers if she can have a hug. I think for children it's always appropriate to voice what you need or prefer. I also agree that squashing the hugging too early seems a waste. Even my 8 yr old does lots of things she'll have to stop doing by the time she's in the workplace. At 3 I'd be concentrating on getting rid of behaviors that are more generally disliked (think nose picking, hands in the pants, screeching - hopefully you don't have to deal with any of those) and with the hugging maybe just encourage asking first and noticing other peoples' enthusiasm or lack thereof for the hugs. If you are concerned about people feeling bad about saying no to a hug you could have Josie try asking, "Hug or Hi-5?" which gives them a graceful way out. Josie seems super smart and empathetic, so I'm sure you and she will figure out a workable game plan as the years go by.

  5. I'm already fascinated by that "at what age" question. (My son with Down syndrome is only 8 months old, so not much is inappropriate for him yet.)

  6. Instead of fist bumps and high fives, how about teaching children how to shake hands?

  7. love the montage. I would take one of those hugs anyday! :)

  8. I would adore hugs. I come from a very physical family. But I can see where it would be hard to transition from cuddly to inappropriate.

  9. This came up as an issue last year when Pacey was in kindergarten. One teacher made kind of a big deal about it, pointing out as you do that it's cute when they are five, not so much when they are 12. His kindy teacher and I agreed though, that it would be unfair to rebuke his affection when she was comfortable hugging the other kids, so we just worked on asking before hugging.

    Interestingly, over the year he just sort of grew out of it anyway. Once he was able to competently greet people verbally, I think he just naturally matured into a more traditional greeting. So, maybe don't worry too much about it and just encourage boundaries gently for now.

  10. My son is also 3. I think he's too young for this.... eventhough my son doesn't really like the whole big bear hug thing and he only hugs me, dad and grandma and occasionally his teacher. He does say hello and goodbye to EVERYONE!!