Dads And Affection: How Much Is Too Much?

One of my fondest father/daughter memories is the time my dad grabbed my hand in the grocery store parking lot and led us, skipping, into the store. I was about 28 at the time. As we frolicked past the people and cars, I had that all-too-rare “I’m a kid again!” feeling. It was as if my hand had shrunk down to the size of a toddler’s and folded perfectly into the strong, protective hand of my father. At the same time, adult me was proud that my dad could still get in touch with his own skipping inner child and that he knew I would never be too old to love being his little girl.

So it was particularly upsetting to me when my husband wondered out loud a few weeks ago if it was okay for him to kiss our three-year-old daughter on the mouth. “Of course it is,” I said. “It would be harmful if you rebuffed her or made her self-conscious about seeking affection from her dad.” Yet, I understood where his fears were coming from. Our culture hints at a certain ickiness factor when it comes to men and physical affection; a fact that seems ignorant at best and damaging at worst.

Therapist Jamie Edwards-Orr, LCSW, who specializes in trauma treatment, play therapy and parent training, agrees. Mommyish spoke with Edwards-Orr to get a professional’s view of the “Dads and Affection” issue, and I was happy to learn that my husband should feel free to kiss our kids with impunity. Thank God, because what’s better than an adorable one-year-old coming at you with a wide open mouth, drool streaming down his chin, and cheerfully planting a wet one on your lips?

What can you tell us about the benefits of physical affection in general?
I can’t really say enough about how important touch is to the survival of infants, and to the feelings of well-being, safety and attachment in toddlers and older children. It’s been well documented. One of the oldest studies that comes to mind is Harlow’s Monkeys, in which Harry Harlow found that baby monkeys who’d been separated from their mothers shortly after birth all chose touch over feeding when given both options simultaneously. Touch is more important to mammals than food.

What advice would you offer dads who are feeling skittish or uncertain about how and when to provide physical affection to their children?
I think it is important for dads to know how important touch is to their children, and that it is great to follow the lead of children older than infants. By this I mean that infants just need lots of cuddling and rocking and closeness, but once they get old enough to interact, they may ask for specific hugs or “pick me up” or kisses. If possible (obviously not if you are holding a hot pot of dinner), do what they ask, because it shows that you are attached to them and care about their needs and wants. It also shows them that you have a deep love for them that cannot be put into words. This is very soothing for children. And don’t worry about “spoiling” your little one; touch is not a way to spoil them. Giving them a lot of things that they don’t need is a way to spoil them.

What would you cite as the main societal factors that might lead a man to feel this way?
Many men have not received a lot of touch themselves or have been told, either verbally or non-verbally, that touch is only supposed to be sexual. They may have been told that boys shouldn’t be kissed or hugged, that it isn’t “manly” to be kissed or hugged. If the father hasn’t had much physical affection in childhood, it might feel stilted or uncomfortable to cuddle a child of either sex.

Obviously the sexual message is pretty terrifying for a good father who only wants to do the best for his child. A father who is not a sexual predator will start to question: is this okay? Is this not okay? Am I a sexual predator if I kiss my little girl on the lips? It starts to feel like too much uncertainty and the father will just “keep it clean” – for example, not do anything that could be misconstrued. This is sad, because fathers and their children deserve to have uncomplicated loving time together just as much as do mothers and their children.

Is there an age or developmental stage at which it is more appropriate for a dad to scale back his physical affection?
Children of all ages need affection, but some children genuinely don’t want very much. This could coincide with puberty or could involve autism spectrum disorders, or could just be in front of friends (the embarrassment factor). Parents need to be aware of what is going on with their children, and to respect the child’s wishes as much as possible. There are some times when the parent knows that the child wants a hug but feels like they need to be strong, and these are times when the parent can give the hug a try. This sort of thing is part of knowing your child and his or her personality style.

A lot of times in puberty the child really will want no hugs or kisses and this is especially a time when the opposite-sex parent should say okay. Puberty is hard enough without feeling like your parents don’t respect your wishes physically. And it is a time when dads often feel uncomfortable being close with their daughters. It is okay to check in and see how she feels about a hug, so you are both clear about it.

(Photo: iStockphoto)

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    • Victoria

      There’s definitely an appropriateness factor here though; a dad constantly fondling, snuggling, and kissing the lips of any kid would raise questions for me. A genuinely warm, close family is one thing, but just because a dad is front-hugging a budding adolescent daughter doesn’t mean he’s a better/more loving/involved dad. Different families show different levels of affection, but culturally speaking, it’s good to taper off the physicality between opposite sexes gradually, as the kids get older and can understand how much they are loved on a more mental level. This builds respect, and a solid relationship. Of course, there are times when more physical affection is needed (breakups, hard times, etc.) but as a rule, dads and moms should keep from mauling and slobbering their preteen offspring in order to teach healthy boundaries. But a dad grabbing his adult daughters hand and running made me laugh! How fun.

      • cajaquarius

        I dunno if I agree. When I was a teenager, I used to get embarrassed by my mom when she hugged and kissed me, especially in front of peers, but as an adult I look back on that affection, fondly. After my dad died, I needed more support than I ever realized and she anticipated and gave it. I was always a soft hearted boy, so that was right for me. Is it right for a dad to deny a more soft hearted girl affection? I think real parental love is a good thing.

    • Shoogyboom

      I’m a 33-year-old woman, and my dad and I still hold hands sometimes, like when we recently went to a concert by our mutual favorite band, Kansas. We were just so happy to be sharing the experience! I remember when I hit puberty and started growing breasts, I changed the way I hugged him — stiffly and quickly and not too tight. One day he said, “Give me a real hug!” So I squeezed him the way I did as a little girl and haven’t stopped… :)

      • Jean

        It’s okay if a daughter does not want to mash her breasts against her father and we ought to rrespect that daughter’s need. How dare we scold a girl for not wanting her breasts to touch dad. And the father out of respect for his daughter’s need to keep her breasts away from him ought to sit down and be quiet. We as a nation have become an appaling group as related to a girl’s need for protecting her body. Shame on people’ s attitudes about girls!!!

      • Annoyed

        Wow!! I can’t believe you just said that. Even if he didn’t “mash her breasts up against him” just think how close her vagina was to him!!! Oh heavens!! Get real

      • Jean

        Wow, Annoyed, I cant beleive that you question that. You need to take awy your coldness and get a bit of compassion. Then get yourself real. 5-2014

      • diver1972

        Are you joking Jean? If not, then I surmise you were a victim of sexual abuse.

      • Jean

        @idver1972,
        You are a sad bit of a person, aren’t you? It is so typical for men to say that a female has been abused, needs to get laid, or hate men, just because they speak up for their gender. You need to learn how to respect females’ right to have an opinion, especially about thier own chests. How dare you tell a female HOW TO FEEL about her own body. I have never been abused, but I sure as heck know that females, girls in particular, can and do feel awkwardness when huggin men. Get real!
        Get over yourself. You show a cold, evil, arrogance, about yourself. But you have no power over females. You do not, i repeat do not have the right to tell girls whether to feel awkward or not. The nerve of you!
        I have three healthy, well adjusted daughters and I hear them abd their friends, talking amongst themselves about how creepy men are to them and have also heard them reject frontal hugs.
        Yet another issue that men try to dominate over women. So sad.
        5-21-14

      • diver1972

        Jean, it’s interesting that, within a single comment, you both chastise me for purportedly telling “…a female how to feel about her own body…” AND also claim that I’m “…a sad bit of a person…”. It appears that you don’t practice what you preach.

        And where, exactly, did I tell “…a female how to feel about her own body…”?

        I “…show a cold, evil, arrogance…”? Really? You conclude all that from two short sentences where one was a simple question?

    • Miranda

      It wasn’t until this article that I realized how I viewed father/daughter affection. I judge men who are extremely affectionate with their children. damn.
      I don’t even know how to respond. I just feel really guilty.
      It could be because I was raised by a single mom who always stressed how important it was to stay away from men who tried to touch us in any way. (She was molested as a child, it was a huge fear of hers.)
      Still…wow. I think I need to examine some things.

      • Leigha

        It’s somewhat fascinating to observe the effects of being raised by parents who were sexually abused as children. Even if they never tell their kids, they go so much farther out of their way to prevent it from happening to them than the average parent does, and it really can affect the kid’s perception of things. For example, naked baby photos, something that seems completely normal to most people, can seem like a huge taboo.

        And, as you said, it has a clear effect on how comfortable people are with fathers showing physical affection. Considering how common abuse is, that should be taken into consideration–people who were abused themselves, or raised by someone who was, are far more likely to be uncomfortable with it.

    • Dee

      It’s a sad state of affairs when a father cannot hug or kiss his own daughter for fear of being labeled a “sexual predator.” There’s just no happy medium in this country anymore. If a man doesn’t show his daughter love or affection, he’s viewed as a bad father. If he does hug and kiss her, he’s viewed as a pervert, and god forbid somebody takes it upon themselves to alert authorities. The amount of true sexual predators that do lurk about in society doesn’t help matters, and people are overprotective enough as it is. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a father giving his toddler a hug and a kiss. Now, I do think the kiss-on-the-lips thing does need to taper off as the child grows older– think more of a kiss on the cheek? That’s just me, though. Not because it makes the man a pervert– I just think that at a certain age, kissing on the lips does become more of a sexual thing. I’m 22, and I myself feel more comfortable with kisses on the cheek from male family members. The only man that gets lip-locked with me is my fiance. But I have to say that I do agree with Victoria, though. A man that constantly fondles, snuggles, etc, would raise questions for me, but I wouldn’t immediately label him a “pervert.”

    • charles boone

      We as fathers should show affection to our daughters that way it shows them when they get older how a man is suppose to treat them. I have 2 girls and I always hug ans kiss them and by showing them that affection they won’t look for it from another man when they grow up. I will always have that relationship with my girls till the day I’m put to rest.

    • Erin

      I must admit, I’m a bit lost on this whole discussion. I’m 23, with a husband and a daughter, and until my husband mentioned it I never realized that his family did not kiss on the mouth, nor did he our daughter. I’ve always kissed mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles — my whole family — on the mouth. It’s not like you’re making out, it’s a peck. I honestly never thought it was weird or read anything into it until he pointed it out, and I’m certainly well-adjusted.

    • Jason M.

      I am a dad and my son is 10 months old. My wife often tells me (jokingly) that our son is going to grow up and be claustrophobic because I constantly hug and kiss him. I think I was more curious if there are limits between father/son affection. Growing up, I was always a little insecure about what my father thought and felt about me and from a young age I decided that if I ever had a son, I never wanted him to doubt his father’s love and affection. Are there limitations with a father/son relationship in terms of how much hugs and kisses?

    • diver1972

      I’m a father to a young girl, 5, and boy, 3. I’m much more affectionate, both physically and emotionally, than my wife. I regularly and frequently engage them with hugs, kisses, tickles, lifts, tosses, flips, etc. and we all love it. I can’t fathom it another way. I just wish that mom was more affectionate. I can see them longing for it. I also see the negative stress it adds to the relationship between my daughter and wife.