When I was young and it was just me and my mum and the rest of the world, she would — as parents showing their affection often do — hug me, hold me, and kiss me. On the lips.
And I thought nothing of it. It was love, pure intentions, a physical manifestation of our close bond. Until it wasn’t. Until it became different, odd, and quite frankly creepy.
And it was a girlfriend who pointed it out to me.
So I was pretty late coming to the realisation that parents kissing their children on the lips is somehow wrong, and I’ve noticed it’s affected me as the roles have reversed and now I’m the parent. When my son was born, I kissed him on the lips — only to quickly change to kissing him on the cheeks or forehead. I suddenly felt a strong sense of judgement otherwise, of others’ watching, a reminder of that message “your mum kisses you on the lips?” and I just couldn’t bring myself to kiss my own son on the lips.
Because it’s weird. And according to thousands of online commentators and a few psychologists, whether it’s David Beckham or Pink or us, it’s wrong.
I’ve thought about it recently because, well, Small Boy has tried to kiss me on the lips. Once, I recoiled and I could see that he felt hurt, or at least a little bit confused. The next time I allowed him, but I think I may have winced slightly.
At his age (nearly 3), I would have loved a kiss on the lips. A sign of my mother’s love. Now I can’t even let my own son kiss me in her place. Why?
Is there something so fundamentally wrong with kissing our children on the lips (or being kissed)? Well, as with pretty much everything to do with parenting, apparently it’s controversial.
A Psychologist Says: Don’t Confuse Your Child
So why shouldn’t you?
A range of arguments are put forward against kissing on the lips, including for “hygiene reasons”, where some people are concerned that kissing children on the lips is a common form of transmission of cold sores. Another argument refers to social and cultural norms where some feel that, at best, it’s old fashioned and, at worst, it’s a social taboo.
The main concern, however, seems to be that it’s “too sexual”. Dr Charlotte Reznick, for example, argues that because the lips are an erogenous zone, kissing them on the lips can be “too stimulating”, “confusing” and even “harmful”.
“If mummy kisses daddy on the mouth and vice versa, what does that mean, when I, a little girl or boy, kiss my parents on the mouth?” — Dr Reznick
But is this really the case? Is there no room for nuance? Small Boy seemed quite dejected when he tried to kiss me on the lips and I didn’t let him. Moreover, he’s seen mummy and daddy kiss each other on the lips, not in a “sexual” way though, but rather in a loving way. The kind of love that is caring and nurturing and everyone seeks. So why wouldn’t he expect that same love from the two people who love him the most?
This is the view of clinical psychologist Heather Irvine-Rundle, who countered these claims as “outrageous”, saying that kissing children on the lips is not an inherently sexual act.
“It’s an outrageous thing to say to parents. It absolutely does not take into account a special relationship that parents have with their children and the non-sexual nature from which that particular behaviour comes.
It also fails to take into account cultural issues as well. We know we come from a culture in which the idea of cheek-kissing and lip-kissing is something that’s kind of OK, but if you move to northern parts of the UK and particularly in parts of Scotland, that’s a really comfortable thing for people to do even into adulthood.” — Heather Irvine-Rundle, clinical psychologist.
I’m reminded of my own mother, and how she tried to kiss me on the lips as a teenager, something that was absolutely fine until someone else pointed out it wasn’t.
But ickiness and sexual worries aside, is there something even more profound and harmful about kissing children on the lips?
For Anna Davies, writing for the New York Post:
“To me, lip kissing implies a chosen love, whether it’s the intimate bisou between friends or a passionate moment with a partner.”
For her, there’s the greater issue of shaping how a child learns to explore what love is.
“One of my friends tells her son that no one in the world will ever love him more than she does. She thinks it’s sweet; I think it’s a terrifying worldview for her son to have. How could you explore the concept of love if you think you’ve already experienced its apex at age 2?”
Yes, viewed as such it’s frightening, but this is no longer about kissing on the lips. You can kiss your child on the lips, love them so much that you could imagine stretching your arms from one corner of the universe to the other — and still allow them to explore love on their own. Afterall, they’ll have a whole lifetime to explore love, from sexual to fraternal to platonic and so on.
Because love, like the lips, is capable of feeling in more ways than one.
And I wonder, after kissing Small Boy on the cheeks once more, if this is what I need to remind myself. A parent’s kiss on their child’s lips is simply one expression of love, in the purest, kindest way. If that’s how he feels, then what am I doing kissing him on the cheeks?
Maybe It’s About Choice
“Far from being sexual, it’s a way of expressing affection. Before I had kids, I too thought it was a bit icky. But now, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. As soon as my kids start to feel uncomfortable about it, I’ll stop.” — Jane Ridley
Whether it’s icky, the cause of cold sores and cavities, or something more judging like social norms and pressure or something more concerning like sexual confusion and love in the wrong way, it seems kissing children on the lips is yet another frontier where parents are under pressure to defend themselves and justify their actions.
And maybe there are real concerns. Not that it’s possibly unhygienic (are we going to stop all kissing and all touching, now?) or icky (I’ve gone past icky with poo and the likes), but if there is a possibility that it’s sexual, or confusing in some way, then it’s something that maybe needs talking about.
But then I think back to my own childhood.
I think of when my mum kissed me — it didn’t feel like anything other than my mum showing her love for me. Not until someone put the thought in my head years later. And yet, for better or for worse, that thought — that wrongness — hasn’t left me since.
Maybe one day Small Boy will try to kiss me on the lips again, and maybe one day I’ll forget the reasons against, forget about what everyone else’s thoughts on the matter and just try to remember my natural instinct. And now Small Boy is asking for a hug, a hold, a kiss.
Maybe I’ll let him kiss me, on the lips. Or maybe I’ll kiss him, and let love be love.