Friday, 10 January 2014

A kiss is still a kiss

Every now and then the whole of the UK media collectively gets their knickers in a twist about something parenting related, and a good chunk of British society follow them in the briefs-bending fun. This week the topic that has got everyone's undergarments knotted (OK, I'll stop with the pants puns now) is the question of whether we should make a child kiss a relative.

Short answer: No.

Why not? It's quite simple: our children's bodies are their own, and we need them to know that. We need them to understand that just because someone says, "kiss me," or makes an advance, doesn't mean we have to go along with it. 

And yet I have seen so many comments from people saying that it's utterly ridiculous, OF COURSE you should make a child kiss a relative! But ... why? Why should you? Would you make an adult kiss anyone they didn't want to? No? Then why do it to a child?

I've seen and heard a few interesting defences of forcing a child to kiss a relative, and here are my thoughts on them:

It teaches them respect - umm, what? We teach respect by NOT respecting the wishes of our child? How does that work? Also, I have respect for a lot of people. I respect my mum and, yes, I kiss her. I respect my husband and, yes, I kiss him. I respect my doctor and ... oh wait. No. No, we don't kiss everyone we respect do we? I'm pretty sure I respected my teachers at school but it would have made things pretty darn awkward if I'd kissed them. Maybe, just maybe, there isn't actually a correlation between kissing and respect. But there is often a correlation between kissing and love, which brings me swiftly to my next point.

It teaches them love and closeness - I vividly remember a moment when Eleanor was about 5 weeks old. My husband had picked her up in the morning and brought her into our bed. She was looking at him and he pointed to me and said, "Look, there's Mummy." She turned her head and gave me the biggest smile, she was so delighted to see me. Children don't need to be taught how to love, they do it naturally. And if you think you need to MAKE a child love you, what does that say about your relationship with them? Children will love anyone who they see often and who shows them warmth, respect, interest and affection - and they will often want to show their love through kisses and cuddles. And that's fine, so long as it's their choice. This isn't about saying children can't kiss relatives. It's about giving them that choice.

The relative may feel upset if the child refuses - Well, that's too bad. But, y'know, that relative is most probably an adult with a fully developed brain and so is likely to be well equipped at dealing with that upset. Children's brains, especially in the toddler years, are still developing and their ability to deal with emotions is not as fully-fledged as an adult's. So I'd say we should be more worried about the child being upset about being made to do something they don't want to do than about an adult's hurt feelings. Eleanor sometimes refuses to kiss and cuddle me. I deal with it. I know she loves me, I don't need her to express it constantly.

This is just paranoia about sexual abuse - I like to think I'm fairly level headed. I know abuse happens, and it can happen to anyone, but equally I know that, thankfully, it's rare, and the odds of it happening to my daughter, or anyone, are slim. But, firstly, I don't see any harm in giving my daughter the tools to recognise when something's not quite right in a relationship. And secondly, this isn't just about preventing abuse. It's about recognising every person's right to personal space and bodily autonomy.

I'll explain with an anecdote. I remember when I was at school, seeing a gaggle of children surrounding a boy and a girl and shouting, "SNOG SNOG SNOG!" I didn't know these children, they were a couple of years below me. Maybe they did really want to kiss each other. Or maybe one of them wanted to more than the other. But there they were, being told, nay, ORDERED, to kiss by all their friends and anyone else who had happened to walk by and decided to join in. Perhaps they would have preferred to do this more privately? Perhaps they didn't want to do it at all?

One day, many years from now, Eleanor may be put in a similar situation, where she is being egged on (or, to put it more bluntly, pressured) to kiss someone. I want her to have the self-confidence to be able to say, "Actually, no, I don't want to do this right now," and walk away. And hopefully, by teaching her now that she can choose not to kiss someone, she will have the courage to make that choice in the future.

But two teenagers being made to kiss is totally different to a little child being made to kiss a relative, I hear people cry. And yes, in many ways, it is different. But, in the words of the song, a kiss is still a kiss. It is still someone entering your personal space, regardless of the intention behind it. And sometimes that's just not desirable. Not wanting to kiss someone, or be kissed by them, is not necessarily a sign that we don't love them - sometimes I'm not comfortable with being kissed just because I feel stressed about something else, or I'm a bit under the weather, and I just don't want my personal space invaded at that particular moment, by anybody. And that's fine, isn't it? Similarly a child may refuse to kiss Aunt Mildred for no reason other than that they're engrossed in what they're doing at that time. If it's OK for me to refuse a kiss, why wouldn't it be OK for a child?

Most parents want their child to be independent. A big part of independence is learning that we have control over own bodies, just as we have control over our actions, our words, our interests. Giving a child the right to choose how, when and to whom they give physical affection is one small way in which we can tell that child, "You're you, you matter, and you can make your own decisions in life." I find it hard to see how you can argue with that.


  1. I've been rather pleased to see all of this talk about not insisting that children kiss every adult who wants to kiss them.
    For slightly different reasons, we've always been very clear that our boys don't have to hug or kiss people they don't want to. The boys are very sensitive to touch and it is important to them that they keep their personal space.
    Maybe if more parents adopt this attitude then children like mine won't feel so strange.

    1. I really hope that the media debate will make people stop and think about this issue. There seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction of, "oh that's ridiculous," but maybe it'll get people thinking and they'll change their minds.

      I've been pleasantly surprised about how many positive comments I've seen about this idea over the past couple of days, there a lot of parents out there with the same attitude but maybe previously they didn't feel comfortable talking about it.

  2. I brought this up with my husband tonight (thinking he would dismiss it as nonsense) but was pleasantly surprised when he agreed with me on the issue! Of course we want to encourage T to be a warm, loving, sociable boy, but this doesn't have to involve forced kissing and we will be going out of our way to make sure this doesn't happen

    1. Well, Eleanor is very warm, loving and sociable but is currently going through a phase of often saying no when we ask if she wants to give someone a kiss and a cuddle. I think it's an independence thing, she's learning she has a right to say no and that's great. I really believe little things like this can make a big difference as children grow up. (Also, she gave me a kiss without being asked at bedtime, so she's still affectionate!)