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.