You can't mandate affection

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 7, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hello,

My 5 1/2-year-old son just recently started disliking his grandmother, who has been taking care of him part time for the past five years. Since he started kindergarten, grandma only sees him a couple of times a week. When she requests her hug and a kiss, my son absolutely refuses her, which makes her very hurt and resentful toward him. She says out loud that he doesn't like her anymore. He also doesn't want to play with her anymore and prefers to play with grandpa.

Both his daddy and I asked him why, but he just says he doesn't want to kiss her anymore and doesn't want to play with her.

I really feel bad about it and don't know how to handle it. My mother-in law is not happy to come over because of the way her grandson behaves toward her.

I even told my son that if he's not nice to grandma he will have privileges taken away. Please help. Thank you

From: Sabler, Brookfield, WI

Dear Sabler,

Why has this happened? There could be something very concrete: he doesn't like the smell of her perfume; she has bad breath; her kisses are too wet. You get the idea. It could also be a combination of where he is developmentally (testing out his ability to exert power over people) and that something happened with grandma that has made him angry with her. Maybe he's feeling more grown up these days and thinks she treats him like a baby.

You'll likely never figure out what it is exactly, but I would try to explore some of those feelings and give him permission to have his feelings: "We all sometimes feel unhappy with people we love. That's OK. But we always need to be kind and respectful. If you don't want to hug or kiss grandma, what can you do?" Encourage him to write her a letter or draw a picture with a message. Maybe he can create a dozen "coupons" that he can give her as substitute hugs.

In the meantime, grandma needs to recognize that she's the adult here. That he's playing with grandpa and not with her tells me that he's trying to exercise some power over her, maybe even punish her. The bigger the fuss you all make of this, the longer it will last. Suggest that she come up with some alternative greeting, like butterfly kisses (you brush your eyelashes against the other person's cheek) or high fives. Or she could tell him, "You're my grandson and I love you no matter what. Some day, I hope you'll be ready to give me a big hug again, but it meantime, can we ..... high-five?"

I would avoid taking away privileges for not kissing or hugging.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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11 comments so far...
  1. I don't believe he should be punished for not kissing and hugging. He should not feel as though he should have to kiss her or hug her all the time...Maybe she hugs too tight or something. And he is at that age where he is his own person and may think that kisses are just plain yucky. But some kids are not super affectionate anyway and to be forced to teaches them they do not have control over their own body. Maybe Grandma could be more like "Oh it is ok if you don't want a hug or a kiss, how about a high five?" (or a fist pump or whatever his liking is would make him feel a little more comfortable with the situation.) I do like what Barbara has to say..."maybe he feels more grown up and thinks she treats him like a baby" Grandmas tend to do just that to kids this age. You will receive some decent advice through the day I bet. I just think a child should never be subjected to forced affection

    Posted by jd January 7, 11 07:19 AM
  1. Please don't punish him or force him to hug and kiss, but make sure that he greets her politely. Suggest to her that she ask for a high-five or manly fist-bump, but not expect one.

    My favorite little boy is now over six and he has changed so much. All I get is a hello as he flies by and sometimes I get no greeting at all. I picked him up from school this week and he handed me his pack and took off like a shot to conquer a snowbank. I attribute this not to his not caring, but as Barbara suggests, to his stage of development. He's also really into telling me what he will and won't do. It's frustrating but I think it is part of his development. When I least expect it, he'll wheel around and nearly knock me over with a hug or a spontaneous I love you. I worry more about being knocked over than getting an obligatory kiss.

    Grandma needs to understand that he's a little boy, not a pet. He's going to assert his independence. She certainly won't expect a hug and kiss when he's 12, will she? I hope not, because I barely got a hello from my nieces and nephews at that age.

    The other thing is that Mom and Dad teach him how to care for other relatives. If kissing and hugging are no longer his thing, perhaps he can do a sketch to present to Grandma or be primed to show her his homework and brag about it or have chosen a book for her to read to him. Then you can prime Grandma by saying please be sure to ask Jr. about his homework/new song/book to read/whatever. It's important for both of them to feel she's special and not just someone who fills in to babysit because Mom and Dad are busy.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie January 7, 11 08:46 AM
  1. Eh, my godson stopped hugging non-parents at age 5, and although it bothered me at first, I stopped taking it personally. True, not the same thing, since I'm not his grandmother and I didn't used to help raise him or anything, but I don't think it's shockingly strange for a boy around that age to not want to hug certain people.

    Posted by sabend January 7, 11 09:40 AM
  1. Yes -- you can insist on politeness and respect. But not wanting to hug or kiss is not an issue of lacking politeness or respect. He ought to be able to own his choice about displaying physical affection. It's his body. And he shouldn't be forced to play with everyone. That these are family members doesn't change any of this.

    So help him find ways to greet grandma politely. This is grandma's issue, not the child's. That she is getting resentful about this is *her* problem -- she needs to be a grownup here.

    Posted by jjlen January 7, 11 10:29 AM
  1. I don't think Grandma's likely to help much by stating aloud that he doesn't like her anymore, either. It's probably not true and potentially will cause him additional emotional confusion.

    Posted by Binx January 7, 11 10:55 AM
  1. It could just be a stage, or it could be related to the grandmother. Particularly, where you said she becomes "resentful" and says out loud that he doesn't like her. My family can be like that, and I think it's really selfish to put that on the kids. My sons (and I) are more affectionate to my father, because he is quiet and calm, and my mother is often high-strung, and can raise her voice occasionally. She feels bad when they often go running to him, and has acted the same way in the past. They still love her, and will be affectionate sometimes, she's just not as warm. She also used to stand there and beg them to stop what they were doing and go give her a kiss. I used to tell her she can also go over and give them a kiss - it isn't about her.

    Same with my grandmother. My boys are a little shy, and sometimes feel uncomfortable when walking in to her house. She starts complaining really loudly the second they walk in the door, "that's o.k,...so and so will give me a kiss, I don't need one from you....". It has always made me so angry. Does she think will make them want to come to her?! It so obviously has the opposite affect.

    My parents always made me give every relative I'd ever seen (no matter how infrequently) a kiss hello and goodbye. It was so ridiculous. I refuse to force my kids to do it. I tell them to please make sure they say hello and be respectful, and they often do give her a quick hug or kiss, but I won't force them.

    Posted by mom2boys January 7, 11 11:09 AM
  1. This is long but I've been in the LW's shoes. I'm willing to bet it's due to the change in childcare arrangements that going to school brought on. My kids did the same thing to my mother, who watched them three days a week until this past September, when my 4-year-old switched to a combination of preschool and daycare and my 6-year-old was in full-day school. Even before the end of the summer, they switched into a "we're too old and cool for this and can't wait to get out of here and get to school" attitude. When I told them that my mom was coming over to watch them after school later in the month (she still helps out on holidays and half-days) they were quite rude and scornful ("SHE's coming over? Oh that stinks, we don't like Mimi tell her to go home. We'll be bad when she's here so that she won't come over again"). They were pretty obnoxious when she was here too but she managed to take it in stride. They are starting to warm back up to her now (and we have spoken to them repeatedly about how they are not allowed to be rude and disrespectful to anyone, especially my mother).

    FWIW, these two also did the same thing when their old, beloved daycare closed suddenly. The older son was starting Kindergarten anyway but the younger had to go to a new daycare. They started talking about how their old daycare was "the bad daycare" with "the mean teachers" and "the bad kids" (none of which was true, it was actually exceptional). I think that casting their prior caregiver in a negative light and convincing themselves that they didn't like the old caregivers anyway helps them to deal with the transition to a new situation. Sort of like when you lose a job that you really liked or get dumped by a significant other and suddenly you convince yourself that the old job/SO wasn't that great after all and that what's new in your life is clearly better.

    In time, my boys have been able to talk about how much they liked their old daycare and how nice the teachers were and how much they miss their friends. It's been over a year, so the wound has healed, allowing them to remember the good without pain. And recently they've been talking about fun things they did at their grandparents' house, like swimming in the pool and going to the park, and their attitude towards my mother has warmed up a lot. So I would emphasize that rudeness is never tolerated but other than that, trust that with the passage of time, if you don't make a big deal out of this, your son and MIL will find their way back to a loving relationship.

    The other thing that I want to add is that as awkward as this is, it is a sign that your son and MIL have a genuine relationship with its own dynamic that will change over time. I did not have a close relationship with my grandparents so while I was always respectful (dutifully complying with the "give Nana a hug and a kiss" commands), I didn't know them well enough to be angry or frustrated or snotty towards them. I sort of saw them as roles (Nana and Grandpa) instead of actual people with whom I could have a real relationship. Hope that makes sense!

    Posted by Jen January 7, 11 11:45 AM
  1. I'd go with the babying angle--Is Grandma expecting him to do something he has outgrown? Is she unwilling to do "boy stuff"? If Grandma wants him to chat with he while she knits, or sit on her lap and listen to a story, and Grandpa plays on the floor with toy cars or throws a baseball, he's going to want to play with Grandpa.

    Posted by di January 7, 11 12:05 PM
  1. I'm 50 so I know I'm old school but it just frosts me to see all of these comments making excuses for this obnoxius little boy. My parents would have never stood for this kind of behavior from me and I didn't from my daugher. This is just the beginning. It will be some other stupid thing later. The parents need to let this kid know that his behavior is hurtful and that he needs to think about how he would feel if kids did this to him. I think he is old enough to be taught these types of lessons and parents need to stop making excuses for their kids bad behavior.

    Posted by Carolyn Briton January 11, 11 06:37 PM
  1. Why doesn't grandma play with the boy together with grandpa? Or is he refusing to let her? If he is refusing, that's a problem. But if the grandparents are playing separately, then the simplest solution is to just play together.

    Some kids don't like being touched, and no one should be forced to do so if they refuse. He doesn't like it, so please stop trying. If he is refusing rudely, he should be taught how to politely let people know that it doesn't make him comfortable. That's what my parents did with me, and my adult relatives respected it.

    Posted by MK January 12, 11 12:43 PM
  1. Thank you Carolyn and Jen. Maybe Iím just an old fashioned grammy, but there is no excuse for not saying hello and goodbye appropriately. I am going through a similar situation with my 3 yo grandson. Believe me, I have never demanded affection. A simple hello and goodbye would be just fine. One doesnít make excuses for poor behavior. period. Thatís how I raised my children and it didnít hurt them one bit to show affection when they didnít want to. They even thank me every once in awhile for teaching them proper etiquette.

    Posted by Grammy November 30, 13 06:01 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. I don't believe he should be punished for not kissing and hugging. He should not feel as though he should have to kiss her or hug her all the time...Maybe she hugs too tight or something. And he is at that age where he is his own person and may think that kisses are just plain yucky. But some kids are not super affectionate anyway and to be forced to teaches them they do not have control over their own body. Maybe Grandma could be more like "Oh it is ok if you don't want a hug or a kiss, how about a high five?" (or a fist pump or whatever his liking is would make him feel a little more comfortable with the situation.) I do like what Barbara has to say..."maybe he feels more grown up and thinks she treats him like a baby" Grandmas tend to do just that to kids this age. You will receive some decent advice through the day I bet. I just think a child should never be subjected to forced affection

    Posted by jd January 7, 11 07:19 AM
  1. Please don't punish him or force him to hug and kiss, but make sure that he greets her politely. Suggest to her that she ask for a high-five or manly fist-bump, but not expect one.

    My favorite little boy is now over six and he has changed so much. All I get is a hello as he flies by and sometimes I get no greeting at all. I picked him up from school this week and he handed me his pack and took off like a shot to conquer a snowbank. I attribute this not to his not caring, but as Barbara suggests, to his stage of development. He's also really into telling me what he will and won't do. It's frustrating but I think it is part of his development. When I least expect it, he'll wheel around and nearly knock me over with a hug or a spontaneous I love you. I worry more about being knocked over than getting an obligatory kiss.

    Grandma needs to understand that he's a little boy, not a pet. He's going to assert his independence. She certainly won't expect a hug and kiss when he's 12, will she? I hope not, because I barely got a hello from my nieces and nephews at that age.

    The other thing is that Mom and Dad teach him how to care for other relatives. If kissing and hugging are no longer his thing, perhaps he can do a sketch to present to Grandma or be primed to show her his homework and brag about it or have chosen a book for her to read to him. Then you can prime Grandma by saying please be sure to ask Jr. about his homework/new song/book to read/whatever. It's important for both of them to feel she's special and not just someone who fills in to babysit because Mom and Dad are busy.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie January 7, 11 08:46 AM
  1. Eh, my godson stopped hugging non-parents at age 5, and although it bothered me at first, I stopped taking it personally. True, not the same thing, since I'm not his grandmother and I didn't used to help raise him or anything, but I don't think it's shockingly strange for a boy around that age to not want to hug certain people.

    Posted by sabend January 7, 11 09:40 AM
  1. Yes -- you can insist on politeness and respect. But not wanting to hug or kiss is not an issue of lacking politeness or respect. He ought to be able to own his choice about displaying physical affection. It's his body. And he shouldn't be forced to play with everyone. That these are family members doesn't change any of this.

    So help him find ways to greet grandma politely. This is grandma's issue, not the child's. That she is getting resentful about this is *her* problem -- she needs to be a grownup here.

    Posted by jjlen January 7, 11 10:29 AM
  1. I don't think Grandma's likely to help much by stating aloud that he doesn't like her anymore, either. It's probably not true and potentially will cause him additional emotional confusion.

    Posted by Binx January 7, 11 10:55 AM
  1. It could just be a stage, or it could be related to the grandmother. Particularly, where you said she becomes "resentful" and says out loud that he doesn't like her. My family can be like that, and I think it's really selfish to put that on the kids. My sons (and I) are more affectionate to my father, because he is quiet and calm, and my mother is often high-strung, and can raise her voice occasionally. She feels bad when they often go running to him, and has acted the same way in the past. They still love her, and will be affectionate sometimes, she's just not as warm. She also used to stand there and beg them to stop what they were doing and go give her a kiss. I used to tell her she can also go over and give them a kiss - it isn't about her.

    Same with my grandmother. My boys are a little shy, and sometimes feel uncomfortable when walking in to her house. She starts complaining really loudly the second they walk in the door, "that's o.k,...so and so will give me a kiss, I don't need one from you....". It has always made me so angry. Does she think will make them want to come to her?! It so obviously has the opposite affect.

    My parents always made me give every relative I'd ever seen (no matter how infrequently) a kiss hello and goodbye. It was so ridiculous. I refuse to force my kids to do it. I tell them to please make sure they say hello and be respectful, and they often do give her a quick hug or kiss, but I won't force them.

    Posted by mom2boys January 7, 11 11:09 AM
  1. This is long but I've been in the LW's shoes. I'm willing to bet it's due to the change in childcare arrangements that going to school brought on. My kids did the same thing to my mother, who watched them three days a week until this past September, when my 4-year-old switched to a combination of preschool and daycare and my 6-year-old was in full-day school. Even before the end of the summer, they switched into a "we're too old and cool for this and can't wait to get out of here and get to school" attitude. When I told them that my mom was coming over to watch them after school later in the month (she still helps out on holidays and half-days) they were quite rude and scornful ("SHE's coming over? Oh that stinks, we don't like Mimi tell her to go home. We'll be bad when she's here so that she won't come over again"). They were pretty obnoxious when she was here too but she managed to take it in stride. They are starting to warm back up to her now (and we have spoken to them repeatedly about how they are not allowed to be rude and disrespectful to anyone, especially my mother).

    FWIW, these two also did the same thing when their old, beloved daycare closed suddenly. The older son was starting Kindergarten anyway but the younger had to go to a new daycare. They started talking about how their old daycare was "the bad daycare" with "the mean teachers" and "the bad kids" (none of which was true, it was actually exceptional). I think that casting their prior caregiver in a negative light and convincing themselves that they didn't like the old caregivers anyway helps them to deal with the transition to a new situation. Sort of like when you lose a job that you really liked or get dumped by a significant other and suddenly you convince yourself that the old job/SO wasn't that great after all and that what's new in your life is clearly better.

    In time, my boys have been able to talk about how much they liked their old daycare and how nice the teachers were and how much they miss their friends. It's been over a year, so the wound has healed, allowing them to remember the good without pain. And recently they've been talking about fun things they did at their grandparents' house, like swimming in the pool and going to the park, and their attitude towards my mother has warmed up a lot. So I would emphasize that rudeness is never tolerated but other than that, trust that with the passage of time, if you don't make a big deal out of this, your son and MIL will find their way back to a loving relationship.

    The other thing that I want to add is that as awkward as this is, it is a sign that your son and MIL have a genuine relationship with its own dynamic that will change over time. I did not have a close relationship with my grandparents so while I was always respectful (dutifully complying with the "give Nana a hug and a kiss" commands), I didn't know them well enough to be angry or frustrated or snotty towards them. I sort of saw them as roles (Nana and Grandpa) instead of actual people with whom I could have a real relationship. Hope that makes sense!

    Posted by Jen January 7, 11 11:45 AM
  1. I'd go with the babying angle--Is Grandma expecting him to do something he has outgrown? Is she unwilling to do "boy stuff"? If Grandma wants him to chat with he while she knits, or sit on her lap and listen to a story, and Grandpa plays on the floor with toy cars or throws a baseball, he's going to want to play with Grandpa.

    Posted by di January 7, 11 12:05 PM
  1. I'm 50 so I know I'm old school but it just frosts me to see all of these comments making excuses for this obnoxius little boy. My parents would have never stood for this kind of behavior from me and I didn't from my daugher. This is just the beginning. It will be some other stupid thing later. The parents need to let this kid know that his behavior is hurtful and that he needs to think about how he would feel if kids did this to him. I think he is old enough to be taught these types of lessons and parents need to stop making excuses for their kids bad behavior.

    Posted by Carolyn Briton January 11, 11 06:37 PM
  1. Why doesn't grandma play with the boy together with grandpa? Or is he refusing to let her? If he is refusing, that's a problem. But if the grandparents are playing separately, then the simplest solution is to just play together.

    Some kids don't like being touched, and no one should be forced to do so if they refuse. He doesn't like it, so please stop trying. If he is refusing rudely, he should be taught how to politely let people know that it doesn't make him comfortable. That's what my parents did with me, and my adult relatives respected it.

    Posted by MK January 12, 11 12:43 PM
  1. Thank you Carolyn and Jen. Maybe Iím just an old fashioned grammy, but there is no excuse for not saying hello and goodbye appropriately. I am going through a similar situation with my 3 yo grandson. Believe me, I have never demanded affection. A simple hello and goodbye would be just fine. One doesnít make excuses for poor behavior. period. Thatís how I raised my children and it didnít hurt them one bit to show affection when they didnít want to. They even thank me every once in awhile for teaching them proper etiquette.

    Posted by Grammy November 30, 13 06:01 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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