To want to belong is innate. For young children, it’s felt through attention and affection. We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, from our very first minutes on the planet. And this need to belong, to be known and loved, sticks with us throughout our lives.
Lots of things signal belonging. Sometimes belonging is knowing the right stuff, finding belonging in that conversation about the recent political debates or talking knowledgeably about the local sports teams. These are gateways to belonging. Belonging often comes from shared experiences and the intimacy that results.
Vying for that intimacy is so complicated. When I arrived to pick up my boys from VBS this week, a well-meaning woman was asking for hugs as each kid checked out to go home. For obvious Safeguarding God’s Children reasons, my inner red alert was flashing. To be fair, it was a small blinking yellow alert; this woman wasn’t predatory. My mama hackles were up, too; my otherwise affectionate younger son wasn’t taking the cue that she wanted a hug.
Fast forward two days. A guy I knew in high school, with whom I had something of a relationship, died. This relationship was born out of my desire to belong, to belong to my group of girlfriends who had kissed boys, girls who had stories to tell. In order to belong, I took a drive with a boy and thought I knew what would happen. But so much more happened because I wasn’t willing to say, “Stop. I am not okay with this.” I wasn’t prepared to say that.
The end of the week came, and my younger son left VBS responding to the woman’s head cocked, arms wide, “What do I need before you go?” with a hug. She squeezed him tightly to her chest and told me, “We’re best buds now!” This was after my husband mentioned something to her about the hugs that morning, to which she replied, “Us little old ladies just love hugs!”
That night, our family went to see Toy Story 4. In the movie, Woody tells Buzz to listen to his “inner voice,” his conscience. Buzz, not fully understanding, pushed his talk button, his literal, programmed inner voice, for wisdom as he needed guidance on his adventure.
Aha! A programmed inner voice. It was an obvious epiphany, but it was the answer for what was bothering me all week. My boys (and I) need programmed words to fall back on when we are surprised by our circumstances and can’t create and articulate our own response. My sister has done this. She has family rules that her children have been able to recite by heart since they entered kindergarten. “Don’t be stupid,” covers a lot of bases. I imagine there are some good Bible verses we can lean on, too. The fruits of the spirit, the totality of the books of James and Proverbs come to mind immediately, but there are more.
In the romantic encounter, I put myself in a compromising position on purpose. There were elements of belonging I would achieve in this predicament. My little voice was warning me, but it was nothing definitive; it was confusion. How I would have benefitted from that programmed voice that could have echoed my value and my agency!
When our children are faced with situations to belong, how do we prepare them to use their voice (without sounding like an 80’s Just Say No video starring our favorite cartoon characters)?
If these scenarios involve adults, we find ourselves on the razor thin wire between respecting others and elders, and practicing agency. When I allow a woman to ask for hugs and at the end of the week see my son giving one willingly while she tells me they’re such good buds now, I see how her expected behaviors created a situation to which he now belongs. This is *not* the way I want middle and high school to go, my friends.
Additionally, I know from my own Safeguarding God’s Children training that this is how predators groom their children. While I highly doubt this VBS volunteer was grooming my child toward an illicit relationship, her expected end of the day hug set off an alarm within me. And yet, I didn’t address the situation.
So now what?
I don’t have answers and am learning from my own missed opportunity for conversation and teaching. I am hopeful that you are encouraged to say something if your yellow alert goes off, even if it might be awkward. I want to encourage you to have a conversation with your child before they are faced with “doing __ makes us better friends.”
Our children are already known and deeply loved by God, by us as parents, and by others. I want our kids to not only know this, but I want this knowledge of belonging to serve as their programmed inner voice and empower them as they move throughout the world.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Pixabay]