The moment I saw that picture of Victoria Beckham and her daughter, Harper, kissing each other on the lips, I thought: “I bet she’s going to get so much flak for that”. And lo, she has.
Fifteen years ago, I watched my cousin play with his young daughter. I wasn’t a mother back then. They kissed each other on the lips and I remember the distinct unease that I felt. Why? It reminded me of wet, unwanted kisses from relatives, but also there was something else, something I’ll come back to later.
Just a couple of years later, I too became a parent and, just as soon as she could, my daughter kissed me – on the lips. It was natural and lovely and both my children still do this. I am ever ready for them to not want to continue this practice, but whenever I give them a kiss on the cheek, they grab me and kiss me on the lips. This is something we miss in the photo and in any debate about what’s right for children. It is often the child who calls the shots – yes, I am talking about in a healthy, loving relationship and not when that relationship is dysfunctional.
Even in comments about this yesterday, people were quoted as saying things that hinted that it was Beckham who instigated it, or needed it, or somehow thought it was best. We often miss out what the child wants, or thinks, as if a child has no opinion at all.
The underlying unease – let’s say it – is about child abuse. “It’s not a good habit to get into,” the BBC quoted someone as saying, as if simply by responding to a kiss from your child on the lips is basically instruction for them to go kiss anyone and everyone on the lips. It isn’t.
What’s not a good habit to get into is forcing your child to do something they don’t want to do (and yes, that involves kissing); or not listening to them or overriding what they want to do in simple every day ways.
It’s often the very people who will squirm at this picture who will go away and tell their children to “Say thank you” or “Say sorry” or “Kiss grandma/pa/uncle/whomever” when that children does not want to. That is a far more damaging practice.
Remember the “something else” I felt at my cousin kissing his daughter? Some people – me included back then – can find the intimacy between a parent and a child threatening. It makes them feel left out. That is what I felt in that moment. I recognise it now when I hear criticism about any sort of perfectly ordinary, loving behaviour between an adult and a child. It’s really not about them at all. It’s about you.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 13th online and 14th July 2016 in the G2 print edition.