Is grooming your kids gross or mom's natural instinct?

By Erin Dym on April 19, 2013
It’s a parent’s job to teach kids proper etiquette, but sometimes, even as a parent, I forget my manners. It’s why I will withdraw snot from my kid’s nose using my thumb and pointer finger (softer than a tissue). Or why on occasion – and with great satisfaction – I will pick balls of brown wax out of their ears. In the absence of wet wipes, I’ve been known to lick my fingers and vigorously rub dried ketchup off their chins before taking them out in public.

These grooming tasks are things I promised myself I’d never do. This behaviour sets a bad example for my kids. It’s gross, unhygienic, and, above all, who wants to be licked and picked at? Try as I might, sometimes I just can’t help myself. It’s led me to wonder whether there is something instinctual about this grooming process; perhaps an evolutionary urge that is just too powerful for us parents to prevent.

Believe it or not, I may be on to something. “Many primates spend a large portion of their day grooming one another,” says Joyce A. Parga, a primate behaviourist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. “Offspring always receive much grooming. Like other anthropoids (a primate group that includes humans, monkey and apes), we ‘groom’ with our hands. Grooming is great for strengthening social bonds and serves another useful function: it helps to remove dirt and other debris – as well as external parasites – from the fur.”

Hmmmm … so it’s a good thing that I groom my children with my own hands?

Joyce says, “Looking at human behaviour through an evolutionary lens, one could say that human parents fussing over their children – doing things like cleaning noses, ears, and mouths – is analogous to grooming among non-human primates. These human behaviours may have their evolutionary roots in our distant past, when such grooming helped to keep our offspring clean and healthy.”

But there’s more: in non-human primates, grooming has been shown to lower stress hormones (both for the groomer as well as the individual being groomed), so it’s a calming activity, Joyce says. “It also serves as an important activity for primates to engage in when they are reconciling after a fight. Therefore, grooming among primates serves many social functions and aids in general hygiene.”

It seems like I’m being guided by instinct, but I also instinctively know that what I’m doing is disgusting. How do I know if I’ve crossed the line? Or will that only happen when my kids get to a certain age or if I do it in public? When is enough enough and when is picking my kid’s nose just plain rude?

“If you see someone else fussing over their kids in public and it makes you squeamish, you shouldn’t do it yourself,” says Louise Fox, owner of The Etiquette Ladies and host of

“We also shouldn’t groom our kids in public – it’s a private activity – and we shouldn’t do it if the child is old enough and capable enough to do it themselves. Just hand them a wipe and let them clean their face.”

“Did you ever pick your kid’s nose and lick their face?” I dared to ask our etiquette expert. She laughs: “All moms do that until our kids tell us to leave them alone!”

What our Facebook friends say

“Try dealing with people with infectious diseases on a daily basis or in an environment where superbugs run wild and you will think twice before you lick your thumb and wipe your child’s face. It’s for your protection and theirs that you don’t do this.” – Danielle D.

“I derive great pleasure from getting a boogie or ear crud off my daughter.” – Jackie K.

“I frequently find myself wiping my daughter’s face with my slobbery fingers! She’s now old enough to pick her own boogies, but I used to do that, too.” – Susan P.

“The odd time I would use my finger to wipe away face food, but I try not to use my bare hands to perform hygiene maneuvers. Usually it leaves me feeling sticky or icky.” – Jennifer

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May/June 2013.

By Erin Dym| April 19, 2013

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