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The Daddy Vest: Hugging and Parenthood

I’m thinking deeply about who I want to use the Hug Vest that I’m designing, and while I can always wear it to hug friends and strangers alike (which I will do eventually), one specific audience I am looking at would be parents and their young children (roughly aged 3 to 7). The reason is that the desire to hug varies drastically among adults; witness the reactions I got with prototyping the vest. There were those who readily hugged, those who refused to, and those who reluctantly did it for the sake of helping the project.

Ah, but parents and kids! According to American psychologist and educator Virginia Satir, we need four hugs a day for survival, eight a day for maintenance, and twelve a day for growth. But for working parents, it may be difficult to find the time to hug their child, let alone get a young one to sit still to receive or to give a hug.

I wanted to find out how parents and children will interact with the thermochromic vest. I loaned the vest over the weekend to my friend and studio seatmate, Chris Cannon, who has a son, Alex, who is almost four. The vest was ill-fitting for both father and son; it was designed to fit a well-endowed girl or a large man, and neither of them fit these descriptions. I was interested specifically in how the material would affect their interaction. Chris, who has been in the clutches of graduate school for two years, says that he has made hugging important:

“Hugs are very important to us, especially since I don’t see much of him these days. I ask him for hugs everyday. We also bond in countless other ways: singing silly songs, making fart jokes, playing with his toys, sitting on my shoulders when we go out for walks, riding the subway together (he loves the G train), bedtime reading, etc.”

I doubted that Chris and his family would be the ideal audience for the vest. They already hug a lot, and I’ve seen Alex on many a day or event in school enough not to doubt that Chris and his wife, Yong, put family first in spite of how busy life can get. I was curious about how Alex would interact with the reactive material and how this can affect his manner of touching, as I knew his attention span was short based on what Chris has told me over the years.

As many of my friends with children have told me, the thing about hugging and young children is that they don’t hug the way adults do. The “standard” hug I’ve observed is putting one arm over the receiver’s shoulder and the other one around the waist. Or both arms over the shoulder or around the waist, depending on the height difference of the hugger and the huggee. But kids are less structured in how they hug or touch. Chris tells me about how Alex hugs him:

“It depends on whether I’m sitting or standing. I guess he hugs me in anyway imaginable, including head butts to the groin (hey, it counts as a hug!) and climbing up my back and putting me in a chokehold.”

The good thing about the thermochromic vest is that the entire vest is reactive. Thus, it didn’t matter how Alex hugged or touched the vest because it would change color despite what type of touch he gave it.
Below are the results, and further proof that I should always get my friends involved in my project. (So great!)

Chris Cannon and son, Alex

Hug Daddy, come on!

When I asked Chris if Alex enjoyed it, he says:

“He liked it. He didn’t want to hug me as much as just slap my back with his hand repeatedly to see his handprints. I enjoyed watching him experience something new, even if it was just for a few seconds before he got bored and moved on. He liked wearing it, probably because he likes wearing our clothes in general.”

Alex wearing (or perhaps a better term would be 'swimming in') the Hug Vest.

The bit that struck me was how Alex played with the material. Why he didn’t necessarily see the vest as a way to hug his Dad, he paid more attention to what the vest could do.

I liked how in the middle of playing and touching the vest, Alex ultimately plays with Chris, who is wearing it.
I loved this interaction, though I am mindful of who this vest is primarily for. As I said earlier, a well-bonded family like the Cannons wouldn’t have as much use for something like this. When I asked Chris frankly about whether he would buy one, he said:
“No, because we hug enough as it is (or at least I threaten to take away all of his toys until he hugs me!). Besides, then it’s a hug motivated by something other than enjoying a hug for its own sake. I’m sure he’d enjoy lights and sound added to it since a lot of his toys have that effect when he interacts with them.” [Note: italics mine]
I would be interested to see how this can play out in families where hugging is a chore. What about working parents who can’t squeeze time for a hug? Or children who need a sensorial “hook” to be sufficiently engaged in human contact? I am mindful of children’s short attention spans, especially in this video where Alex throws the vest on the couch and runs away when asked by his parents to show them how the handprints worked:
More to come, and soon.
A HUGE thank you to the Cannon family for agreeing to participate in this! Especially to Chris, who is repetitively awesome.
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