Guidelines for kissing often follow cultural ties

I’d like your thoughts on whom to kiss. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? For example, the other night I was at a party with my boyfriend and he and a female friend (no history) kissed on the lips to say goodbye. I was shocked and didn’t say anything but it made me wonder where one should draw the "lines of kissing" in the sand? I also wonder if parents should kiss their older children on the lips? I would appreciate your insight and look forward to hearing from you.

— P.S., Evergreen, Colo.


It’s easy to think of kissing as just another happenstance custom of being human, that we could have just as easily evolved tapping someone gently on the forehead with our index finger as an expression of fondness, love and intimacy. Or tickling. Or lifting our shirt and bumping navels.

That is, until I notice how near universal kissing is. Then it occurs to me that we were designed for kissing. That speaking, eating, kissing and blowing out birthday candles was on our Maker’s mind for the mouth before He knelt to gather clay. Cats rub faces. Dogs lick. Primates groom. Humans kiss. It’s not a custom. It’s what we do.

There are a variety of types of kisses, not to mention contexts in which to deploy them. Kissing a cheek — something I do with my children, family and a few close friends — is an expression of fondness and close bond. Kissing a forehead or top of the head is more protective, almost a blessing. Kissing a hand can be an act of obedience (as a priest kisses a papal ring), a pouring of gratitude or, in some times and places, the way a man begins a courtship with a woman that is politely chaste but still expressing interest.

When family and friends kiss, the lips are pursed and held tight. When lovers kiss, the lips are relaxed, supple and yielding. Oh, my.

When my middle son went on his Rite of Passage, important men in his life wrote him letters. My best friend, writing to him of romance and women, wrote simply: "Learn to kiss. Everything else will follow."

Should parents kiss their older children on the lips?

I would say that question is answered culturally with wide variability. I mean there is nothing at stake, in itself, that is a pathology or even an unwitting impedance to healthy human growth and thriving.

My mother still kisses me on the lips. It’s adorable. She walks up, puts her hands on my shoulders, purses her lips forward and kisses me. It’s very much the "little girl" in her. Not altogether different from the way a 4-year-old granddaughter leans over to kiss Grandpa goodbye. I have two reactions to this habit of my mother’s: It doesn’t bother me, and it has always been that way. Just the way we do it in my family.

I’ve never kissed my sons on the lips but heaped goodnight kisses on their cheeks and foreheads when they were young. Joseph, now just shy of 9 years old, announced to me a few months ago that I was to stop kissing him. I’m still pouty about it, but I respected the new boundary. Conversely, at some point I resumed kissing my eldest, now 19, on the cheek. If he hates it, he hasn’t said anything.

Because that’s the point, whatever a family’s given habits, each family member has the right to be in charge of his/her own body! Children, of any age, are allowed to turn their head to be kissed on the cheek or even to decline a kiss altogether. Children aren’t browbeaten to hug Grandma, etc.

Unless there is evidence that your boyfriend is disrespectful to you in his relationships with women or perhaps a man who consciously or unconsciously "leaks availability" in his relationships with women, I’d encourage you to be objective about his kiss with the female friend. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a say. It just means that this conversation should proceed objectively — two committed people negotiating respect, not dissimilar to the way you’d negotiate privacy, the position of toilet seats, how and with whom do we share symbols of intimacy and what symbols of intimacy belong exclusively to the relationship.

It isn’t a conflict, a row or even a criticism. It’s a guarding and protectiveness of exclusive intimacies. It’s as simple as, "The symbol of lips on lips belongs only to us. No one else." I’m laying money he’ll say, "Of course, sweetie. You count on that."

Then I’m betting he’ll kiss you. On the lips.

Originally published in View News, Dec. 7, 2010.

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