The internet was set alight last July with angry mums from all over the globe furiously tweeting, blogging, instagraming, emailing, shouting and generally airing their views in any medium that would have them. What was the source of this ire, you ask? The answer is a Dr Charlotte Renzick, an American clinical psychologist and author of a rather wordily title book ‘The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success’. Apparently, she had the temerity to suggest that kissing one’s child on the lips is inappropriate and should not be encouraged. I have to confess my indignation levels retained a relative flat line regarding this pronouncement, but that is probably because I find something slightly discomforting about it myself. Before you get the lynch mob ready, I am not suggesting that I find anything deviant or wrong in it, but rather it is something to which I am unaccustomed.
So why exactly does this Doctor object to it?
Dr Renzick warns that kissing one’s child on the lips is ‘too sexual’. The mouth she argues is an erogenous zone and that this seemingly innocuous act of affection ‘can be stimulating’ and cause confusion in a child’s mind. She goes on to suggest that some children might associate kissing with sexual or romantic activity between parents and that engaging in a ‘similar’ activity with them is likely to leave them with troubling questions. She writes that, “If mommy 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.”
To be honest, I think this is a bit of a storm in a tea cup. Common sense dictates that this is clearly not what happens. There is after all, nothing ‘similar’ in receiving a kiss on the lips from the sloppy chocolate covered mouth of a two year and a passionate kiss from a partner (on the rare occasions they might get to spend some time together). There has been a steady stream of clinical psychologists chiming in to this effect, denouncing what they see as a rather clumsy and cynical conflation of different acts. Indeed, some have drawn parallels with breastfeeding, a fellow erogenous zone. There is nothing confusing, they exclaim, about that either.
And I would agree. There is nothing inherently sexual in the act of kissing itself. There is, in all things, a need to consider the intent behind the act. A Sydney based clinical psychologist, Heather Irvine Rundle, echoed these sentiments in an interview with news.com.au suggesting that “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.”
She goes on to say that,
“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. It’s not sexual at all and I think the fact that it’s something we’re happy to do in public means that there’s nothing sinister about it.”
I must confess that I was unaware of this cultural divide within the United Kingdom, if indeed her observations are correct (please feel free to disabuse our Australian friend with your views in the comment box below), but the general point stands.
Ms Irvine-Rundle was keen to point out that lip-kissing was very different to kinds of touching that would be considered abusive to children.
“We teach kids that the type of touch that isn’t OK is the type that has to be kept secret, that (the child) can’t tell anyone about. It’s a touch that makes the child feel uncomfortable but they’re not allowed to say anything about it. As soon as you make it a secret you know you’re heading down a pathway that could potentially be abusive … and if you are doing anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a doctor that you’ve done, because they may see it as (being) wrong, then potentially what you are doing as a parent isn’t appropriate. But if you feel that it’s OK to do it in public — and you’re open to public scrutiny in those places — and it’s not of an abusive nature, then it just comes back to what’s appropriate within your family’s norms and values, and that may differ to others.”
She added that most children naturally asked their parents to stop kissing them on the lips when they reached primary school-age, usually because they were embarrassed in front of their friends. I think this point is significant. After all, relationships evolve. Try getting a kiss on the lips from a surly unwashed teenager and see what happens.
The greatest surprise for me in all of this is the amount of discussion time given to Dr Renzick’s views, but perhaps, given the inflammatory nature of the topic and the current climate of sex abuse scandals, I shouldn’t be. As the controversy abates, however, Dr Renzick might consider whether she has made a serious misstep here. Parents are willing to take advice on almost anything that relates to their child (which is presumably her source of income), but when you set your sights on something as sacred, innocent and inviolable as the bond between a parent and child (and how they express that bond) you’d better step carefully. Any action that seeks to defile or diminish this is likely done so at her peril.