As parents, our love for each other manifests itself in physical affection (after all, we do have kids). But how much amorous display is appropriate in front of our children?
"It is good for children to see warmth and a bond between parents," says Margaret Heldring, president of the Society for Family Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association. "It is reassuring to children."
In a healthy parental relationship, children accept certain displays of affection between their parents. This demonstrated admiration can support a child’s sense of well-being. However, Heldring says, "Affection that is too sexual is uncomfortable for children and breaks a boundary. Too much would be a long kiss, intimate touches or certain spoken words such as ‘I can’t wait until later tonight’."
In general, parents can safely respond to each other with the following gestures:
Holding hands. Whether in front of the evening’s television show or while walking together down the street, parents holding hands can make a child feel safe and secure. Seeing a warm bond between the parents (and extending the hand-holding to the children) promotes the perception of a strong family unit.
Hugs. An embrace between parents shows acceptance and concern for each other. A warm hug (not a full body clench) shows a child the parent’s willingness to comfort and support the other parent.
Kisses. A kiss to a child between his parents shows a deeper commitment. Seeing parents kiss (quick pecks only, please) furthers the impression of the parents caring for each other. Kisses upon returning home, leaving for work or in the parents’ first encounter during the day shows the parents value each other, assuring the child that the parent will be missed and their return is welcomed and appreciated.
Flirting. Flirting between parents, depending on the family norm, can demonstrate a dimension of romance in the relationship. Children see that a relationship should be fun and playful. Some parents may rub each other’s shoulders; others may see a pat on the behind as acceptable.
Children of different ages will voice different reactions to parental affection. "A 4-year-old is all about the tactile: the physical touch and contact. But a 13-year-old, dealing with their own developmental and body changes, may feel uncomfortable in seeing displays of affection. But rest assured, despite their responses at any age, children will be secretly reassured by their parents’ love."
Susan Knell, a clinical psychologist with Spectrum Psychological Associates in Cleveland, Ohio, says she sees the family norms as a deciding factor. "An affectionate family, one who displays warm physical contact among extended family and friends, will condition a child to see this as acceptable behavior. If kisses are a normal greeting among relatives and friends, a child will think nothing of seeing his parents kiss hello or goodbye."
She says affection within a healthy marital relationship presents a positive role model for children.
So go ahead. Give your spouse that hug. It is good for your relationship, and ultimately good for your kids.
Julie Hanahan is a freelance writer and mom.
"I think parents should show a lot of affection in front of their kids. Some examples of affection should be letting your kids hear you say the words "I love you" often, little hugging and simple kissing and hand holding. Cuddling each other can make kids feel safe."
"Hugs and some kissing is cool, but anything R-rated is inappropriate."
"Both my husband and I came from families that showed lots of affection to each other. I feel that this has helped us both know how to love each other better and show it to our children so that they too can know what true affection (love) looks like. This helps for a good childhood filled with fond memories of your parents in love as we are."
"All children should experience the feeling of a loving home. The parents are their greatest teachers for showing that affection in front of their children. Lots of hugs and some kisses on the cheek are a great way of showing that as well. After all, we are raising future husbands and wives."
"I think it is a good idea to show love and affection in front of the kids. We hug and kiss. We say I love you and miss you all the time. It should be kept PG between parents in front of the kids. But don’t be afraid to say I love you and I miss you!"
"Parents should definitely show their love and affection towards one another. It isn’t anything shameful and it shows children that they are in a secure, warm and loving home."
"Parents should show love and affection in front of their children. Simple things such as hugging, kissing and holding hands show that you care about that person. Saying "I love you" and "I miss you" is another way to show love and affection. Anything more than this is most likely deemed inappropriate. Children need to learn how to show love and respect."