Cheek pinchers and why they are bad news

cheek pinchingIt’s a problem when you have a good-looking child. It’s a bigger problem when you have a good-looking child who has curly hair and cheeks. It’s an even bigger problem when people feel a good looking child with curly hair and cheeks has no business being a boy.

Two weeks ago, Re and I were invited to a home birthday party of a friend. Yes, he was my friend, but I like his kids and the whole family package, plus Re liked them too, and I wanted him to be a part of the plan.

As we waited for the lift in his building, we saw another family waiting: a man with two little girls and a lady who appeared to be his partner. Before I knew it, the man crept up and cupped Re’s cheeks from behind, pinching them. I was aghast. Re was startled and jumped, as any child accosted by a stranger is wont to do. He shrugged him off, rubbed his cheeks and quickly held me really tight. His cheeks have long since shrunk from the time I wrote this post, but turns out, the cheek pinchers are still at it.

Seeing him recoil, the perpetrator chuckled. I told him that Re was trained in self-defence. It was a veiled threat, because I was itching to slap him, but didn’t want to make a scene in front of Re. His wife smiled stoically and asked me if the child’s name was Re. She went on to add that she followed my columns and blogs. I saw a cake in her hand and it took me all of 10 seconds to realize we were going to the same party. This was a bad start, I thought, shuddering at the thought of spending the the rest of the evening in present company.

Once in the lift, the cheek-pincher continued to make eye contact with Re as he tried hard to look away. He was now aiming for Re’s curls, wondering aloud if he was a boy or a girl. I motioned him away sternly. His wife said boy. But he looks like a girl, said he. I stared. The ninth floor took forever to arrive. This was getting worse.

At the party, I mentioned the incident to the hostess. She was shocked too, but we went on with the motions of the party. Re’s mood had transformed seeing his friends, but mine hadn’t; I was just playing along.The rest of the evening was redeemed by a lot of dancing, and me keeping the cheek-pincher at bay by being my rudest best. I noticed that cheek pincher also proceeded to grab another (older) child and make him sit on his lap. The child’s parents didn’t bat an eyelid. May be it was just me.

As parents, we are always in the “slim-pickings” zone when it comes to making new friends post baby. We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose their spouse, the children, the rest of it.The problem with “package deal socializing” is that someone is always a bad egg. And they are already part of your circle by the time you realise it.

May be I should be protecting my friends and not be writing about this, but I really wanted to put this out there, so that said cheek pincher and the thousands of cheek-pinchers lurking around get the message.

Soon after the aforementioned incident, Re got grabbed and fondled by a grandmother of a bus-buddy while we were waiting for the school bus one morning. I was still reeling from cheek-pincher, so I lost it and gave her an earful. She was shocked; may be this was a first. She accused me of misunderstanding her pyaar. I told her there are many ways to show pyaar and intimidating a child by grabbing him is not one of them. Bus buddy’s family has now shunned us, although she had become a frequent play-date at our place. Her mother too has stopped smiling at me. Perhaps she is just being a dutiful daughter-in-law. Re is intrigued that his buddy doesn’t sit next to him on the bus anymore and is less chirpy around him.

But if you are a cheek pincher, or a child grabber, I want to know: why do you do this? Is it all children or ones with particularly juicy looking cheeks? Or curly hair? Would you be offended if the child in question shrieked and ran off? Or is that part of the fun? One person on twitter told me he does it because he had it done to him as a child. Another said but of course the kids enjoy it. I can’t imagine a more bleak world if all adults start thinking like this.

I have played aunt to several babies of friends, and I have never pinched a baby’s cheeks or picked up a baby without being asked to, and trust me, there were some really cute ones. I have never seen my parents do it either. And I have never ever touched a child I don’t know.

I am okay with being friendless for the rest of my life, but I have a problem with adults who can’t keep their hands off kids. People explain to me all the time that they are doing it out of love, that they meant no harm, that they love my kid so much, it was the only way they could react upon seeing him in person, but I don’t buy it.

Research reveals that nearly early two-thirds of humans will pinch, squeeze, grab, sometimes even bite cute little children. Most of these reactions are deemed playful and appear to be reactions to cuteness. They are definitely more common in India. On the surface, they look very much like aggression, and if I am  unable to see the difference as an adult, how can one expect a child to?

There is a term for it. Cute aggression – that strange compulsion to nibble a baby, stroke its face, or pinch its cheeks – is officially a thing. The same team of researchers who established the term have now expanded on it in a new paper in Psychological Science, explaining why humans feel such paradoxical, violent urges towards things they enjoy.

They theorise the feeling is similar to nervous laughter or tears of joy, an attempt to regulate emotion by going in the opposite direction and thus bringing ourselves back down to a normal state. “So, people who show dimorphous expressions in response to cute stimuli, like babies, tend to show them in response to other positive situations and emotions, such as crying during happy moments in movies,” the researchers wrote.

May be in the hierarchy of wrong things done to a child, cheek pinching features fairly low, but it’s the starting point for raising the bar. I don’t know when adults will truly learn to appreciate the personal space of a child. I am saying this here loud and clear so I don’t have to pinch your cheeks back in public: If you love my kid, keep your hands off him. Chances are, you have a shot at being loved back.

I think all children who have had their cheeks pinched should be allowed one good, hard kick at the pincher. Re is learning taekwondo and coming for you soon. And I will be cheering from the wings.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th October, 2015)