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Reluctant To Kiss Grandpa

“We have a 5-year-old daughter who is our only child and the only grandchild of my parents who visit us every week or so. The last time when Grandpa went to greet our daughter she made a face, turned away from his kiss, and ran off to play with Grandma. I asked her if she was angry with Grandpa and she said no. We don’t want to force her to kiss Grandpa and don’t want her to ‘fake it.’ But I told her she had to be polite. Grandpa feels very sad.”

You did the right thing. No child should be forced to kiss anyone. Ideally every child will act polite when relatives visit but learning manners takes a while.

Some families always kiss on greeting, some just hug, some just smile and start talking. once. If yours is a kissing family your daughter will learn to do this just from observing, she doesn’t have to be told to kiss.

But there are three times in a child’s life when they are likely to squirm away from a greeting embrace: in infancy, as preschoolers when they are big enough to decide who they feel like kissing, and as teenagers who don’t want to do anything they did when they were younger.

Just about every baby goes through at least a brief period of protesting when a stranger approaches. Stranger anxiety appears at about 8 months although some babies exhibit this earlier. Prior to this the baby breaks into a grin of delight when ANY human face draws near. But with maturity comes a new realization: I don’t know that face! Friend or foe? Because the baby is now able to discriminate among faces, appropriately, the baby’s behavior indicates trust of familiar persons but anxiety or caution at the sight of unfamiliar ones.

Needless to say such behavior can cause tears in grandparents who were greeted with a smile when the baby was 3-months-old only to have the baby burst into tears when they approach a few weeks later.

Just last weekend my new almost 10-month-old grandson that I see every few weeks greeted me with a big smile. But at brunch the next day, he took one look at an uncle he had not seen for several months, buried his head in his mother’s arms and refused to leave her arms to sit in the highchair. Neither Baby nor Uncle enjoyed the experience!

Not all babies do this. And not all babies do this with every new face. I warned my husband to expect grandson Adam’s tears when he visited us at eight months. Although he had not seen us since he was a newborn and had been in a car for 20 hours he broke out into a big smile and held his arms out to Grandpa.

The little girl in today’s letter is big enough to decide who to kiss. For some reason she likes to kiss Grandma but doesn’t like to kiss Grandpa. Maybe his whiskers scratched her last time, maybe she doesn’t like the smell of his aftershave lotion, maybe he inadvertently hurt her feeling during the last visit–it could have been something as innocuous as telling her to wait while he finished a conversation. Or he may have insulted her by telling her to be a big girl and clean up her room, but she didn’t like hearing this from someone other than her parent.

Teens, of course, don’t think giving Grandma or Grandpa a hug is cool. Although some teens are not yet comfortable in their maturing bodies this is generally not physical shyness. I think it represents worry that their peers would consider the behavior babyish.

My unscientific poll of grandparents indicates that most of them realize some kids may be shy or sometimes reluctant to endure an embrace but don’t get sad or upset. The reluctant-to-embrace behavior is generally short-lived. Sometimes a little nudge like a tiny present in your pocket gets a big spontaneous hug. Sometimes the child just gets used to the visits and realizes that in their family everybody hugs and kisses when they greet each other.

Other grandparents take it personally. They voice their unhappiness to the child’s parents, try to kiss the child anyway, cajole the child for a kiss, or look sad when a grandkid turns away. This may put such an emphasis on what is usually transient behavior that the behavior persists.

So Grandpa and other unkissed relatives should relax. The parents can show this little girl how to shake hands like grownups do when they don’t feel like kissing or when a kiss is not appropriate.