A Hug and a Kiss

Lessons from the littlest ones.

Kim Van Es, Teacher-Writer

In the last four years, I have experienced the joy of grandparenting: all the fun with little of the poop (in all senses of that word). Since my granddaughters live in my town, I typically take them for a couple hours at a time–entertain them with books and scavenger hunts and pretend scenarios (it’s been the Grinch, Cindy Lou Who, and Max for a couple months now), then return them totally worn out and dirty. My daughter-in-law has learned not to send the girls over in good clothes.  

The author with her grandchildren.

I will boldly confess that I am a better grandma than I was ma to young children. This improved performance is due to multiple factors, but key is the learning I have done in the years between. 

What I’ve noticed, with great humility, is that it didn’t take my son and his wife the same number of years to learn important parenting lessons. Nor other parents of their generation. This point was driven home to me on a recent playdate.

The play date was with a Northwestern College alum. It gives me great joy when former students, now K-12 teachers, stay in contact with their ol’ prof—via Facebook, Christmas greetings, or even face-to-face meet-ups when possible. Recently Ashlee and her four-year-old son Lincoln drove over to hang out with my three-year-old granddaughter Rose and me. Ashlee and I debriefed this unusual school year while the kids played beside us, in the cool basement on a 90-degree June morning. 

Lincoln did gently offer correction when Rose pretended that the T. rex was eating from a tree. ‘It’s a carnivore,’ he explained.

Of the two preschoolers, Rose was clearly the most extroverted. She played host as best she could to a more reserved Lincoln. “Would you like to play with the cars? Would you like to play with the blocks?” Once Lincoln and his mom retrieved the crate of dinosaurs from the van, the two kids got down to business, building a fort for the prehistoric creatures and lining them up strategically on the floor. Lincoln did gently offer correction when Rose pretended that the T. rex was eating from a tree. “It’s a carnivore,” he explained.

But the high point of our morning was just as Ashlee and Lincoln were heading up the stairs to leave. Thrilled to have made a new friend, Rose said to Lincoln, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?”

Lincoln looked over at her across the step and replied, “No, thank you.”

And Rose simply smiled and said, “Okay.”

I was stupefied. How in the world did these kids know how to treat each other with this much respect? They were three and four, for cryin’ out loud. Let’s analyze this brief conversation, shall we? 

Rose was asking for consent to touch this other child.

First, Rose was asking for consent to touch this other child. Her parents have obviously explained to her that some people like to be touched and some don’t, and some might like to be touched only at certain times. Yes, by asking, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?,” this three-year-old was acting more maturely than many, many adults.

By saying, ‘No, thank you,’ Lincoln was setting boundaries for his body.

Second, by saying, “No, thank you,” Lincoln was setting boundaries for his body. His parents had obviously taught him that it’s okay to express a preference not to be touched at a given time and how to express that preference politely. If only all of us could set and express our boundaries in such a healthy way!

Third, Rose’s “Okay” acknowledged that it was Lincoln’s call as to what happened in his personal space, and she accepted his decline without offense. 

I don’t know about Lincoln, but Rose is not always this sweet or respectful. (She’s three, after all!) Still, I was amazed by what happens when we teach children what respect looks like, model that behavior ourselves, give kids words to use, and reinforce loving acts. This unscripted scenario gave me hope that with each generation, we can learn to live and love better—across gender, across ethnicity, across age, across the human race.