Explaining to my four-year-old what happens to bedtime kisses


By Rosanne Ullman

Our second daughter, quite unlike our first, seemed to be a “night person.” As a baby, Jaina kept late hours, then slept most of the morning. When she became a toddler, preschool required us to roll back Jaina’s bedtime little by little to make sure she got adequate rest before the 8am wake-up call. It took some effort, but within a few weeks we had Jaina on a schedule with a workable bedtime.

Like other parents, we relied on books and quiet talking time to help smooth the transition between climbing into bed and drifting off to sleep. Often, Jaina stalled for time, asking for just one more story or song. We tried to walk the line between accommodating reasonable requests and turning bedtime into an all-night activity.

The final step in the routine was the goodnight kiss. Whichever parent read the story would kiss Jaina, then leave. The other parent would promptly enter the room for a quick chat and kiss.

The whole thing went well for a year or so until, when she was four, Jaina developed a new stalling tactic. After both of us had kissed her, she began calling from her room.

“I need another kiss!” she’d shout.

Dutifully, my husband and I would go into her room, plant the smooch, and leave.

Soon one extra kiss wasn’t enough. Jaina claimed the kisses “disappeared” right after we gave them to her.

“They don’t disappear,” I corrected her. “They dry. That’s all they do. They dry.”

By the time we each found ourselves returning to Jaina’s room four or five times, the pleasant bedtime routine had turned into a long, tense tug of war. We knew we had to do something. We decided to go all tough love on the kid.

“Each of us will kiss you three times,” my husband informed Jaina a bit sternly. “Then we will leave, and you will go to sleep.”

“But what if the kisses disappear?” Jaina gasped.

“They won’t.” It was the kind of promise you make while not looking the child in the eye.

Tough love produced a lot of tears. We knew that, eventually, we could break Jaina of this strange demand, but only by forcing her to cry herself to sleep for who knew how many nights. I’m the first to advise parents to let a six-month-old do just that, but I had trouble applying the strategy with a four-year-old.

I was simply puzzled. I could understand that Jaina had trouble falling asleep at an hour that fought her natural clock. But I couldn’t figure out what all this kissing was about. Surely we showed her enough love. Yet she seemed so sincere in her desperation. Originally, Jaina probably had been playing for time, but I became convinced that, by now, the thought of dropping off to sleep with only “disappeared” kisses honestly alarmed and saddened her. I had trouble relating.

I’d always been extremely reality-oriented. Even as a kid, I preferred biographies and stories with real-life messages to fairy tales, science fiction and romance novels. My first child, Rebecca, shared this view—so much so that it seemed out of character one day when she asked if she could put her newly popped-out tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy to replace with a gift.

“Well, yes, I suppose you could do that,” I replied hesitantly.

“You know what, Mom?” Rebecca had second thoughts. “I don’t sleep with a pillow, and there is no such thing as a tooth fairy, so why don’t you just give me a present?”

We both laughed. That’s exactly the child I would expect myself to create. But Jaina was full of imagination. She’d play for hours in a make-believe world, talking for each of the participants. At a restaurant, a fork and spoon would become actors in Jaina’s script. In the car, she might resort to her fingers as ten tiny players.

I considered Jaina’s approach to life as I sipped my orange juice one morning and pondered how to deal with the disappearing kisses. Jaina loved fantasy, and I honored Truth. It occurred to me that Jaina could never overcome her fear by facing it the way I would. On the contrary: we adults had to view it from Jaina’s corner.

That night, I let my husband go first with the kissing. Then I sat down on Jaina’s bed and held her hand.

“I figured out why you’re upset that the kisses Daddy and I give you disappear,” I said. “It’s because we never explained to you what happens to the kisses after they land on your cheek.”

I could tell from Jaina’s face that I had her attention, so I went on.

“You see, kisses really mean love. When we kiss, the kiss leaves your cheek and travels into your heart. There, it turns into love. So the kiss never actually disappears. It just changes into love and stays in your heart forever.”

Jaina’s eyes lit up as if I’d let her in on the deepest secret of the universe. When I kissed her, she smiled.

“I feel it going to my heart,” she said.

I concluded that I’d struck a pretty good compromise. By fashioning a type of fairy tale based on a truth, I catered to Jaina’s sensibilities as well as my own. I tried to keep in mind her often whimsical perspective and, from that night on, one kiss was always enough.

Rosanne Ullman is a journalist and mother of three who advocated for improving children’s education by serving three elected terms on her local school board. Her children’s picture book, “The Case of the Disappearing Kisses,” is based on this essay.

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