Recently, my parents met my partner's parents for the first time. We had a lovely day filled with delicious food, card games, and chatting, but when it came time to part ways, I suddenly got a bit anxious as I said goodbye to my mom and dad. Why exactly? Well, in my immediate family, it's customary to express appreciation and love with a peck on the lips. We do it when we say hello, we do it after we open gifts or heartfelt cards from one another, and yes, we do it when we say goodbye. But, I am now almost 30, so I know that this is far from the norm for many American families. And that is why, when I bid my folks adieu that day, I had to actively remind myself, Okay, don't kiss Daddy on the lips when they leave. — a sentence I am well aware sounds disturbing to many. I was afraid, though, that my partner's family would think we were complete and total freaks and question what wildly inappropriate mess their son had gotten them into.
While I haven't personally experienced someone shaming me for kissing my mom or dad on the lips, every so often, a celebrity parent will post a photo of themselves kissing their kids on the mouth and I watch as Twitter users, Instagram commenters, and talk show personalities rip them to absolute shreds for this supposedly vile behavior. It's happened to Hilary Duff, David Beckham, Gabrielle Union, Tom Brady, and every time, I make a mental note to never publicly display this practice like the celeb in question just did. I also think, What's the big deal? Then, I text my sister to laugh about how we're apparently disgusting because, even as adults, we'd kiss any member of our immediate family — yes, including my dad and brother, sorry not sorry — on the lips without a second thought.
Every person in my immediate family is affectionate and expressive, and I've always thought of this as a beautiful gift. As a kid, when my dad came home from work every evening, my parents would, without fail, kiss one another and embrace long enough that we kids would want in on the action. I'd run to them, and say, "Elevator open!" and they'd make just enough room in their hug for me to squeeze myself in and soak up the sweetness. Our Christmas cards usually featured me, my sister, and my brother, not just lined up side-by-side in coordinated festive outfits but with our arms wrapped around each other in a completely unstaged way, because that's just how we were in repose.
Other families often commented on this, but it never crossed my mind that they thought it was weird, let alone bad. In fact, in elementary school, my best friend told me that she had asked her sister why they didn't hold hands when walking around the mall like my family did — she craved that same level of connectedness. I've never doubted for a second that my parents and siblings truly love one another — and me — because we don't just express it verbally, we embody the sentiment. And, externalizing love, for us, does sometimes include kissing on the mouth. If that act made and continues to make me feel cherished, what's so wrong with it?
Well, apparently, a lot? This is unfortunate for me, someone who has long thought that everyone who is so anti-kissing needs to chill out. But, parenting expert, educational psychologist, and behavior analyst Dr. Reena B. Patel says she doesn't recommend parents kiss their kids on the lips at any age because "it becomes a blurred line."
"Yes, it's cute when they're little, but then how do we create and teach personal boundaries and personal space? Where do they draw the line?" she tells me over the phone. "It's not an easy thing to teach. If we're doing it because of love and affection and we're showing that we care about someone, who are we to tell a child that you can't care about one person versus the other? The whole goal is to teach kindness and compassion, so it becomes very gray for them."
But, why does kissing, specifically, cross the line for many people? Is it really so much more intimate than hugging? Wouldn't it be just as inappropriate for kids to hug their friends or classmates without consent as it would be to kiss them? Not in America, no. But, Dr. Patel, who has a background in cultural counseling, says that there are countries, like South Africa and Australia, where closed-mouth kissing is a widely accepted greeting. European parents also tend to be "looser" with their children, she says. But, thanks to our puritanical roots, Americans tend to sexualize things that are not inherently sexual, and introduce shame into all sorts of situations where it doesn't belong.
"When we kiss our children, especially when they're young, they imitate anything we do, so they will then model that on their baby doll or their stuffy, and we think that's cute," Dr. Patel says. "But, at some point, when a child becomes school-aged, it's not cute anymore. What happens, sadly, is there's a stigma in our society, and do we want our child to have to deal with that?" That's a fair point since most parents want to do everything they can to protect their kids from feeling othered, and experiencing sexual shame can do lasting damage, but it also proves that there's nothing inherently wrong with kissing consenting family members, and that it's society that is projecting immorality onto the act of kissing. Besides, doesn't discouraging people from doing it all together just continue to perpetuate the taboo and make it harder for kids to grasp nuance, and understand that not everyone in the world does everything the same way?
When I was a kid, I recognized that many of my friends' parents weren't as affectionate with them as my parents were with me, but I never recall feeling shame about how we operated nor any confusion about boundaries with my friends and classmates. Perhaps this was because I observed how my parents interacted with others outside of our immediate family. They didn't ever lay smooches on their friends or work colleagues — nor, funnily enough, did they do that with their own parents or siblings. Just as each culture has its norms around kissing, our five-person household was its own subculture with its own norms. Dr. Patel reassures me that's okay. "There is no one guide. I want families to feel comfortable to do what's best for them within their family dynamic," she explains. "I just think it's important to have an awareness that it's something you do as a family and not something you impose on someone else."
With that in mind, hugging and kissing within a family could be used as an opportunity to teach children about consent. Adults can model that public displays of affection are acceptable among those with whom they have close relationships, while also asking those outside of that circle if they're okay being hugged. And, if someone in that inner circle doesn't feel like being touched at any given time, the adult can model consent by immediately respecting that boundary that was put into place. Then, at the point when kids move beyond the age when they're learning social behavior primarily through observing others — usually about 7 — parents can begin to have developmentally appropriate conversations about consent within the context of hugging and kissing. "Sometimes parents feel like they don't have to have a conversation about consent until their kids hit puberty, but those conversations need to happen even at the elementary [school] level," Dr. Patel says, emphasizing that this is something to teach all kids.
Open communication plays a key role in kids understanding consent, and the more we talk about kissing, hugging, touching, or really anything else, the less stigmatized it becomes. Dr. Patel cites an example parents might run into: "When you drop your child off at school, they might feel embarrassed and not want to be kissed by you, even if you might want to. We have to be mindful of what they're feeling and then have that conversation with them." Depending on the age of the child, the parent could then explain that not wanting to be kissed in public is fine, because it's a social norm the child has picked up on and that this desire has nothing to do with how much the parent and child love one another.
"At the end of the day, just allow your own child to set their boundaries. It's okay for them to set those healthy boundaries because it's concerning their own bodies," Dr. Patel says. "We are here to promote individuality and autonomy." If you do that successfully, perhaps one day you'll have a kid that knows they're loved, is respectful of others' personal boundaries, and will write a 1,400-word article shamelessly declaring that they think consensually kissing family members on the mouth is great, actually!