Candy (and Kisses) from Strangers

Last Saturday, within the span of about two hours, Theo received seven kisses and two lollipops, all from people we’d never previously met.

We mentioned the attention to a Rabat resident, who told us that this was typical in Morocco. When he was visits Europe, it feels strange to not pick up and play with random children. Even further on that extreme: the United States*, where he found that mothers would look concerned if he simply smiled at their children.

Cultural norms – they vary. Brian and I acknowledge this, and understand that in some countries (well, Turkey) strangers will find it very natural to spend an extended period of time petting our child’s blondish hair, even though it feels odd to us. And that in most parts of the world, people just give candy to children. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where we actually have a saying about candy from strangers. (For anybody from outside the US, the saying is: “Don’t take candy from strangers.” Pretty simple.)

Normally, we attempt to try on some of the cultural norms of places where we stay. However, Theo is in the process of developing basic interpersonal skills, and cultural norms complicate this, especially when they shift every month as we move from country to country.

If random people hug him, then why can’t he snuggle the reserved 20-something guy on a train in Kuala Lumpur? People touch his head all of the time. Is it okay to bop the head of a girl in an orphanage in Thailand with his shoe**, if he’s just playing? Can he initiate hand holding with the man who is giving us a tour of a cave in Vietnam? And why do his parents keep limiting the candy that everyone else in the world clearly wants him to enjoy in excess?

India was possibly most challenging in terms of setting limits about touching. During our month in Delhi, we noticed that Theo was pushing and grabbing more ­­– perhaps in reaction to his status as often unwilling minor celebrity.

Theo decided that he no longer wanted to pose for photos about halfway through our month in Delhi and eventually started hiding whenever photos were suggested. However, people really, really wanted him in their photos. Several times, adults would try to move and/or physically restrain him so that they could take a picture of him with their children. When this happened, I would always rush over to rescue him. We don’t mind if people take photos of Theo, but we do care that he gets to maintain his bodily autonomy.

And this, in the end, is the line that we’ve decided to draw in terms of “going with” cultural norms. For us, it comes down to consent.

If Theo is okay with being kissed on the side of the head and posing for pictures, then we don’t mind.*** If Theo isn’t okay with it, then we intervene. The same rules apply to Theo. In addition to banning shoving, hitting, and pushing outright, we keep reminding him to ask others before touching at all. (Though, admittedly, language barriers complicate this.)

For now, this seems to be working. Our conversations with Theo about “his rights” and “other people’s rights” are ongoing, but we think he is mostly understanding. Plus, in a couple of weeks we return to Europe. There, Theo will probably be scooped up and kissed less often… even if he still is given plenty of candy. From strangers.


* This doesn’t surprise us. We’ve been traveling for almost two years now, and while the degree of kisses and candy-distribution varies by location, we haven’t experienced anywhere where the level of worry about children and strangers nears that of the United States.

** Okay, that that was clearly awful – probably worse that you’re imagining, because of the perceived sacredness of heads and dirtiness of feet in Thai culture.

*** Not surprisingly – Theo always consents to being given candy. He just protests sometimes when we confiscate it until after dinner.