A recent winter outing for David Beckham and his seven-year-old daughter made waves after the father of four shared an image of the little girl leaning over to him for a kiss on the lips.
“Good Morning Britain” host Morgan Piers described the public display of affection as “quite creepy,” saying: “It’s just weird right? Who does that with their kids? Who kisses their kids on the lips?”
A viral firestorm followed, with some people condemning the billionaire former soccer player for kissing his child on the lips and others rushing to his defence.
It’s far from the first time this has happened. People have criticized other stars, like Victoria Beckham, Pink, Hilary Duff and Tom Brady, for similar smooches.
In a recent Yahoo Canada poll, 56 per cent of respondents said there’s nothing wrong with kissing your kids — while 23 per cent said it’s fine, as long as they’re little.
What’s all the fuss about? It depends on whom you ask.
“What comes to my mind is a culture that’s becoming hyper-sensitive to issues surrounding sexuality,” says Toronto-based parenting expert Alyson Schafer, author of several books, including Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviours. “Obviously, we’re very protective of kids and I think we have a backdrop of the #MeToo movement and so people are very primed to think in these regards, but I would say if we go back to the general idea of what’s OK and what’s not OK in terms of physical contact with kids, the idea is about consent.”
“There are some kids who absolutely have a higher sense of personal space and boundaries,” she adds. “Maybe they don’t want to kiss grandma and grandpa. They may not want to kiss their parents, and that’s OK. But if you have an adult and a child who both enjoy a peck on the lips, that does not need to be a no-go zone because a culture associates kissing on the lips with something romantic. That’s an unfair overgeneralization.”
Schafer points to some cultures having norms that North American society wouldn’t approve of, such as going topless on the beach or entire families sharing a single room or bed. Some families go to nudist colonies together.
As for herself? She kisses her own kids, who are 23 and 24.
“Sometimes it lands on the lips, sometimes it lands on their cheeks, sometimes it’s just a hug,” she says. “It’s always on the fly and in the moment, but there’s always an agreement that that contact is fine. So long as the two of us think it’s fine, then that’s great. To generalize to every parent-child relationship is really very problematic in an era where loneliness and isolation and the ability to connect is one of our number-one epidemics.”
However, Schafer stresses that children should never be forced to be affectionate with anyone, even if it’s with their own parents or grandparents. And clearly, if there are signs of abuse, then any kind of kissing or other physical contact is beyond inappropriate and authorities need to intervene. And while there are obviously cases where a kiss isn’t simply a kiss that must be addressed and taken seriously, showing affection shouldn’t be discouraged.
“Do we need to generalize and shift an entire population to be a no-touch culture? I think that’s a real shame,” she says. “When we’re talking about internal relationships in healthy, intact families, it’s ridiculous.”
Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver psychiatrist and author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids, Without Turning Into a Tiger, says the controversy that erupted over the image of Beckham kissing his daughter could be taken as an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids, especially as they enter adolescence and may be feeling more self-conscious about their bodies. It’s a chance to self-reflect, too.
“If you’re triggered by that photo, maybe ask yourself why,” Kang says. “Is it a clash of values? Is it a boundary violation? Maybe I need to check in with my kids and ask them: How do you feel when I walk around with my bathrobe on or if I walk in when you’re bathing or kiss you on cheek? You can reflect on your own parenting; do I give enough cuddles and kisses and hugs and physical contact. Our own emotions might come up, and you can apply that to your relationship with your children.”
“We’re all trying to do our best,” she adds. “This just shows how sensitive and polarized the issue of parenting can be. It pokes right at deep, emotional centre and triggers all kinds of things from our own childhood, all kinds of insecurities. A photo might represent something different to so many people.”
For instance, with one in four girls and one in six boys experiencing sexual assault as a child, some people may interpret the Beckham photo from that perspective, the kiss being a sign of something far more abhorrent. To others, it’s an innocent, lovely gesture between a father and his daughter.
Bathing with your child wades into similar territory. Some parents will have a bath with their kids up to a certain age; some families go skinny dipping together. And just like with a kiss on the lips, some people will view such actions as harmless and natural while others might view them as inappropriate and obscene.”
“We need to recognize there’s a spectrum,” says Kang, whose kids are aged 13, 11, and eight. “I go back to the idea of being a ‘dolphin parent’: firm but flexible. We have to be firm with issues of sexual boundaries, comfort levels, nudity, physical displays of affection: firm in our own personal boundaries but we also have to be flexible.
“I don’t kiss any of my kids on the lips, but we do cuddle a lot,” she says. “I do think it’s important to take the time to ask: what are my boundaries and what are my children’s boundaries? Then remember the flexibility aspect: every family is different and every child is different.”