Grandparents Are Too Affectionate

Archived Q&A and Reviews

February 2002

We recently had a visit from my husband's mother and her husband. An issue that came up for me was how they showed affection for our 3 1/2 year old girl. I'm interested in how other parents feel about this issue. For example, they would kiss her a lot, blow strawberries on her neck, and ask her to hug and kiss them and they hug and kiss her even though she wouldn't come to them. Our child can speak up for herself and say she doesn't like something so she isn't shy or compliant. I felt that even though she seemed ok with it, and didn't object verbally my husband and I felt that it was a bit much and we both hated that sort of thing as children. There were two incidents that were especially troubling to me regarding my mother-in- law's husband. (They have been together for a long time and he wants to be called Grandpa. I don't feel that he is someone who would be sexually inappropriate with a child and I am very sensitive to this issue because of my own family history. What makes this complicated is that I really don't like this fellow for a number of different reasons.) He approached our child once when she was in bed and once watching a video on the couch, asking for a kiss/hug goodbye. Both times my child didn't get up and hug him, but nonetheless he bent over to her and kissed her a number of times and hugged her. I felt that she really couldn't get away from him if she wanted to, plus there wasn't anyone else in the room until I walked in to see what was going on. I feel that his behavior isn't sensitive to her (ie if he asks for a kiss/hug and she doesn't get up he shouldn't go ahead and hug her anyway) nor to my husband and I regarding how we'd like our child to be treated. My husband and I are very affectionate with our child but we'll back off if she wants us to. Another complicating factor is that there is a history of very difficult relations between all of us and neither my husband or I feel that we can speak to them about this without completely alienating them. I'd appreciate knowing how other people handle similar situations.

Your post was complex and there is no way I can answer it specifically, but I wanted to bring up something relevant that I have noticed. When I visited my husband's family in Venezuela, I noticed that everyone was VERY physically affectionate, especially in hellos and goodbyes. Everyone is kissing and hugging like crazy and it is simply not appropriate for a child to resist this. If a child did resist, the adults would probably laugh and tease and kiss them anyway. In contrast, my WASP family almost never exhibits physical affection to my children, and I so wish they did. My son hangs back, but I know he's dying for Grandpa to kiss and hug and hold him like Uncle Fernando does, but my dad seems to be waiting for my son to make the first move... I've tried to prod my dad or my son or both of them, to disastrous effect. They both get embarrassed and pained and it's just terribly sad to me. I think Americans in general have a sort of odd relationship with physical affection, and just wanted to throw this light on it as well. Good luck, I'll be curious to see what others have to say. Mom of a 3 year old and an infant
Trust your instincts on this one. You are right to limit it. I believe that every child needs to have the right, reinforced by her parents, to limit this type of physical affection. If you need more authority behind your position, before taking it to the grandparents, consider this. I spoke with the head of the sex crimes unit for Berkeley Police (while viewing the Meghan's Law CD of sexual offenders) and specifically brought up the issue of grandparents asking for kisses, the child saying no, and grandparent doing it anyway. She STRONGLY reinforced my view that adults shouldn't be allowed to give physical affection without the child's consent, no matter how young or what the relationship. She said this teaches them that they are not allowed to say no. How can they distinguish between an acceptable forced affection (i.e., a grandparent who means no harm) vs. an unacceptable forced one (an uncle or friend who MAY mean harm). They need to have the confidence to say no to ANYONE, and not get confusing messages in return. Their instinct needs to be reinforced. (BTW, I forget the name of the police officer, but she was very interested in doing preventitive education of this type, and would go out and talk to groups of girls. She's the head of the sex crimes unit and very personable.)

To temper this extreme scenario, there are other benefits to setting limits. When I got the grandparents to back-off and NOT kiss/hug until the child initiated the contact, I found that overall the relationship got stronger. At once specific visit, we made both grandmothers (and they didn't like it) not kiss/hug our daughter until she was ready. It was and remains the best visit we ever had, and the one on which they got the most attention and affection in return. It's an issue of basic respect. Good luck. I hope this is helpful. meghan starkey

I highly recommend sending your message to Erica Holmes at the East Bay Kidpower organization. KidPower is a wonderful non-profit organization that teaches personal bounderies, safety awareness and self defense to children and adults. I have taken a course with my 4-year old, which I found very valuable. A friend of mine contacted Erica re a boundary issue and got a very helpful, detailed response how to handle the situation. Please e-mail Erica at eastbay AT or ebkidpower AT A Mom
Regarding your parents affectionate behavior towards your child, I am not sure what your objection is. When I was younger my brothers and sisters would always run up to greet out grandparents and/or relatives, no coercion needed. It was expected and we were always happy to see them as it was not an everyday event for us. I don't see what is so wrong with showing affection unless the lesson you want to teach your daughter is that it IS wrong. You kept mentioning that you had a problem with it. Maybe you had a bad experience as a child. It would be terrible for you to spoil an obviously loving relationship that your daughter currently has with the grandparents because of some unresolved problem the two of you have. Perhaps some counseling would help the two of you. It sounds like more of a problem for you than for your daughter. At 3-1/2 your daughter doesn't really know all that much about manners, but she is old enough to learn by your example.

It would be disrespectful of you to teach your daughter to refuse the hugs and kisses. It would also be very hurtful. The fact that your child didn't get up when they were leaving also showed you didn't teach them the respect due their elders. When guests are leaving (especially relatives) you should always get up to say goodbye. It is just good manners. You don't want your parents last memories of your daughter to be her sitting on the couch ignoring them. Think about it.

Unless there is a very real reason against it, I would not refuse your parents their show of affection. They are just showing how much they love her. You didn't say how often they get to see her or how often other relatives get to see her. These visits could vbe a highlight in their lives. anonymous please

Grandparents are supposed to be affectionate. Your daughter is very lucky to have grandparents who adore her and are willing to demonstrate their affection. I don't think there is such a thing as being loved too much by the grandparents. When kids get to be preteens maybe they will start cringing from the kissing, but they still appreciate the attention.

Everything you described sounds to me like a typical interaction between a granddaughter and grandparents who are crazy about her. I wonder why you object to grandpa asking for a kiss goodbye. Even my teenagers are required to kiss grandma goodbye when she leaves whether they want to or not. They don't mind anymore but they started to balk when they hit 10 or 11. I think not kissing the grands hello and goodbye (at the very miniumum) is as rude as refusing to shake hands with someone when you meet them. The same manners we teach kids about social situations we should apply to family situations I think.

Maybe the problem actually is that you are not so crazy about your in-laws, which is not such an unusual position to be in. ;-) It helps me to think about how my kids will think of their grands when they grow up. They won't have them for all that long. Sadly a lot of us lose our parents when our kids are young. You want your daughter to have fond memories of her grandparents even if they are people that you don't especially admire yourself. You and your husband are the main people in her life that can make sure that she has a good grandparent experience that she can look back on later with happiness and good feelings. Maybe you can think of a grandparent-greeting and grandparent-farewell ritual that you can take part in too (for your daughter's sake) that isn't too over the top for you, but includes the physical affection that your in-laws want, and then just start doing it without putting too much significance on it. Ginger

I was very interested to read the responses to your post about affection and grandparents. I strongly agree that children should feel comfortable saying no to types of affection they do not wish. As an aunt, I know that when my nephew went through phases where he did not wish to hug or kiss me, I felt it was important to respect his wishes. I think we send mixed messages to children when we tell them that their bodies are their own and no one has the right to touch them without permission, yet force them to be affectionate with certain people. It is such a shame that many adults cannot be more conscious and respectful of the wishes of children. Personally I would never want a grandchild or other family member to kiss or hug me out of obligation or shame. I think sometimes people who have not had the violating experiences you alluded to have a difficult time understanding the importance of listening to children's wishes. If the grandparents are really worth having in your child's life, they will respect your wishes, even if they are upset or do not understand your concerns. Go with your instincts and good luck!