By Halina Newberry Grant
The boy is her height, but chubby. He has muddy blond hair, a yellow t-shirt with a green dinosaur, denim shorts and dirty feet from running through the sand. He’s watching some older kids tumble down the slide, all shoes and screams and angled joints.
She sees him from across the playground, and slowly walks his way—he, an oblivious target. As she inches close to him, he senses her and looks up, curious. She sidles closer, slowly extending her hand to his arm. He looks down, then into her eyes do we know each other? He wonders. But he doesn’t pull away.
She gets a little closer, and I notice his parents circling the wagons. What’s happening? Is she going to push him? Pull his hair? I know I must intervene in some way.
“She’s a hugger and a kisser” I say to them. And before I can finish the warning, she has moved in with lips puckered, humming a gentle mmmwah! as her mouth glances off his cheek. He has pulled away just in time, successfully avoiding a kiss from a stranger. The parents laugh it off, and I am relieved that they see no harm in a little affection between toddlers.
She has finished her snack of corn puffs and orange, and is looking around for some distraction other than the books and toys I have packed for her in the bumblebee backpack. She enjoys watching Papa play tennis for a few minutes, intrigued briefly by the novelty of the thwak! his racket makes every time he lobs the ball across the net.
A seven year old girl with light brown skin like my daughter’s and tight ringlet curls with auburn streaks walks by. She is wearing practice gear, her name “Melissa” spelled out across the back of her nylon shirt. My daughter’s hand shoots up in a wave. “Hi!” she says, and the older girl, surprised, pleasantly replies with her own greeting, then moves on. She has important tennis to play.
A half hour later, Melissa returns. This time, my daughter steps into her path. They could be sisters.
The girl stops, curious.
My daughter inches closer, extending her hands towards the taller girl’s shoulders.
She puckers her lips.
“She likes to hug and kiss other kids. If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s no big deal for you to step away” I suggest, knowing my daughter will be left bewildered.
Instead, the older girl extends a hand. My daughter takes it, and for the next half hour, the two of them parade, hand in hand, without saying a word to each other, up and down the courts. Every adult they pass admires their sweetness. My daughter looks as though she is being led by the Queen of All Kids. She is honored and proud. And I am invisible, walking behind them at a distance, grateful that Melissa is patient, kind and loving.
It’s snack time. I hold out a baggie of bright orange fish crackers to my daughter, who has already finished her string cheese and applesauce. The fish aren’t her favorite, so she’ll only eat a couple.
But with each one, she looks the fish in the eye, puckers her lips, makes her humming mmmmwah! and kisses its face before popping it into her mouth.
She is only twenty-one months; not even two. No child or baby can pass our cart in the store without her reaching out her hand to wave “hi!” or to put her hand to her mouth to blow a kiss. My daughter has the biggest heart I have ever encountered, and is so open and generous with her affection and kisses, that I know it will eventually become a problem. Even the family dog is a constant recipient of humming hugs and kisses on his head, and he endures like a good-natured big brother.
Lately, I have become more adept at intervening on the playground, and suggesting that she offer “high fives” or “knuckles” to kids who seem wary of her affectionate advances. But to me, the idea of teaching my daughter to keep her love to herself is tantamount to oppression of her sweet spirit.
I know that every child—every person—has and should have the choice to be the recipient of any kind of affection, especially if they didn’t ask for it outright. Which is why I step in, steering her towards respecting these boundaries. But as I do, I know that I am re-shaping her personality in a way. And it marks a passage from one phase to another; from an innocent baby into child—cognizant of the effects of her actions and impulses—that I am not ready for. I want desperately to preserve her innocence.
I believe in letting my child’s personality develop freely, without my tampering or molding it into my idea of what a child should be. I believe in helping to shape the world around her to benefit her spirit, rather than shaping her spirit to fit into the world. But mostly I believe in love. I believe that her heart feels an amorous swelling for others that overwhelms her, and her virtuous impulse is to communicate it. And the worst thing I can imagine is teaching her to ignore her loving impulses.
Of course, it’s inevitable. She will learn that hugging and kissing strangers is not socially acceptable, and I would prefer she learn from me and her father first. We’ll teach her that we love her hugs and kisses, but others may not, and thus protect her from becoming shunned or excluded at a park or playground for crossing a line.
For now, she’s still innocent. She’s too young to understand that our world and people have imaginary lines—across neighborhoods, across race lines, across country borders and around our personal bodies.
I only hope I can help to her to learn how to redirect all this love she feels into something else equally beautiful; art or music or another form of expression that will light the world. I won’t dampen the spark or the flame, I will help it stay ignited, but help to make sure it is contained in a tinderbox, and used only when it’s safe for her, and wanted by others.
Photo Credit: Donnie Ray Jones