By Sarah Quezada
“Mom, we do not kiss kids at school.” My four-year-old stared up at me as I covered her with a blanket.
Oh good. The before bedtime conversation every mother wants to have. Of course I’m the mom of the classroom kisser.
“Um… were you kissing kids at school?” Please say no. Please say no.
“Yes.” There it is!
My daughter went on to explain how she was playing with a friend when his dad came to pick him up from preschool. So she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.
“Ms. Terri was laughing and laughing,” my little girl said. “And then she told me, ‘We do not kiss kids at school.'”
My initial horror shifted to gentle amusement. Of course my daughter was kissing kids goodbye at school—that’s what her dad told her to do! My husband is Guatemalan, and he has been teaching her since birth to greet and say goodbye with a kiss.
I’m terrible at this practice, and it’s become a source of family humor that I’m able to make cheek kissing one of the most awkward experiences for everyone involved. I’m always too early, too late, too shifty, too nervous.
We have been passionate about nurturing my daughter’s bicultural identity, supporting her as fully Guatemalan and fully American. And it seems she’s 100% adopted her Latino kissing along with my penchant for making other people uncomfortable. But we always knew her light skin and perfect English would cause people to doubt her Latina-ness, so we’ve been even more intentional to promote bilingualism and take her as often as we can to visit her abuelos in Guatemala City. We also attend a Spanish church, where everyone kisses good-bye.
So what do I do as the mom of the classroom kisser? I know she is discovering what it means to balance her two heritage cultures. Through trial and error, she is learning who speaks which language, what’s culturally expected in different situations, and when it’s okay to kiss. Adapting to a multicultural world is a tall order for a four-year-old. It’s a tall order for any of us.
I want my daughter to be her full, authentic, bicultural self. But I also want her to fit in, right? I definitely don’t want her to be made fun of for kissing good-bye the way we’ve taught her. I never want her to look back and say, “My parents taught me to kiss everyone, and then I was ridiculed at school.”
Many months after our bedtime conversation, I witnessed her kissing in action. I came to pick her up from the gym childcare when she announced she’d made a new friend. Terrific. Then, she darted back into the playroom and kissed her new buddy goodbye. I watched as the girl wiped the wet from her face and yelled, “Ewww. Disgusting!” My daughter was unphased.
On the way home, we talked about how not everyone kisses good-bye and she should always ask first if it’s ok to do so. I didn’t want her to feel like she shouldn’t kiss friends whose culture was different. But we also discussed how it’s all right if a friend says no. And that simply means we don’t kiss them.
Weeks later, I then watched her ask a new friend at the park if she could kiss her good-bye. When the little girl said yes, the two accidentally smooched on the lips while I looked at her mom apologetically. I wanted to offer explanation, but instead just mumbled and scurried away. I wondered if my instructions had been sufficient since perhaps it would be better to simply hug in some situations.
It seems conversations about culture, context, and identity will be ongoing with my daughter. Where we are intentional to establish her heritage roots, we must also be committed to walking alongside her as she navigates their application in her world. But through it all, I am struck by how flexible she is in today’s multicultural world.
Flexible is generally not a word I would use to describe my daughter, who still needs a very specific spoon to eat her cereal in the mornings. But kids seem to have an easier time moving between cultures and adjusting with ease. My daughter gobbles up the Cuban food in the church fellowship hall while talking with her friends in English with a bit of Spanglish thrown in for good measure. But she is just as comfortable at all-English events in our mixed white and African American neighborhood. This is her world. And it is in cultural flux. As I watch my daughter interact within her world, I realize a multicultural experience is all she’s ever known. While she continues to adapt to these changing contexts, I will remain close by, helping to guide her and encourage her to maintain a groundedness of her own identity.
Sarah Quezada lives in Atlanta, Georgia in a talkative, Spanglish household with her Guatemalan husband and two kiddos. She writes about culture, family, and immigration on her blog, A Life with Subtitles. You can connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.