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Why 'give grandma a kiss' can be bad for kids

Dr. Amy Tiemann

Being forced to give Great Aunt Edna a kiss is almost a childhood rite of passage. But is it harmless? Contributor Amy Tiemann says we send kids the wrong message when we make them show affection against their will. Will the 5-year-old who's taught to kiss grandpa to be polite grow up to be a 15-year-old who kisses a boy just so she won't hurt his feelings? What do you think? 

By Dr. Amy Tiemann, founder of MojoMom.com and Center Director of Kidpower North Carolina

The holiday season is almost synonymous with family reunions, and with that comes touch and affection. Who doesn’t recall being forced to kiss Great Aunt Edna as a kid, or getting scratched by Uncle Bob’s beard as he leaned in for a squeeze?

As a mother, I can relate to the embarrassment that a parent might feel when a child doesn’t want to give a big hug to grandma — especially if Grandma has been eagerly anticipating the visit for weeks and months.  But through my work teaching personal safety as a Kidpower instructor, I have learned that supporting our children when they set boundaries is a very important practice.  Backing up a child who is setting a boundary does not mean that Grandma, or Great Aunt Edna, or Uncle Bob are necessarily doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch for play and affection is a child’s choice in all situations. The holidays are a perfect time to work on “boundary setting” with our kids.

Kidpower senior instructor Erika Leonard writes about how to plan for your child’s needs:

“Many children are shy, slow to smile, or reluctant to hug when relatives and friends come to visit on special occasions.  You can be prepared to jump cheerfully into conversation with the friend who has asked your shy 5-year-old a question without noticing that she just can't seem to answer. Help direct overwhelming attention off your child and onto other things — the football game on TV, the table of appetizers, conversation with you about absolutely anything.”

It can be helpful to bring relatives into this conversation ahead of time, letting them know that you are practicing with the kids to help them learn to set boundaries — and who better to practice with than people who know and care about the kids?  That way, when a child sets a boundary with Grandma, she can feel that she’s part of the practice rather than left out.  Even if a relative is offended when a child does not want to kiss or hug them, this is an important time to keep in mind the bottom line — kids need to learn from an early age that touch for affection and games should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.  It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries.  Keep in mind Kidpower’s basic principle: A child’s safety and self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.

For more detailed information about practicing these ideas with your family, I highly recommend Erika Leonard’s full article, "Holiday Boundaries: Protecting Children's Boundaries and Helping Others Do the Same.