Fathers, Kiss Your Sons
My 9 year-old son struggles to express himself verbally. He is not one to talk about his feelings and certainly not one to ask for emotional support or nurturing. We connect primarily through shared activities- doing things together and listening to him talk about his interests. It is often hard for me to know what he is thinking and needing emotionally. However, lately he has been asking more and more to wrestle with me. In addition to the essential body-slams, elbow-drops, and choke-holds, I found one new move to be increasingly effective, and surprisingly well-received-- smothering kisses. I will hold him down and start repeatedly kissing his face, neck, and head. Initially I thought he would find this torturous, yet much to my surprise, he will just lie there and receive it willingly. While this renders my technique as a feeble and fruitless wrestling move, it does provide a wonderful opportunity for us to exchange meaningful physical connection.
These interactions got me to start thinking about how children use physical touch to communicate and experience intimacy and closeness in their relationships. Haptic communication is a type of non-verbal communication that describes how people communicate and interact through using the sense of touch. As touch is the most sophisticated and intimate of the five senses (Burgoon, Judee, Guerrero, Floyd, & Kory; 2010) it would make sense that using touch would be a fundamental way for children to interact with their environment. Infants are born with multiple tactile reflexes, such as the grasp reflex (closing their hand around a finger placed in their open palm) and the rooting reflex (when you stroke a baby’s cheek they will turn toward the side that was stroked and begin to make sucking motions). During this time when other senses are far from fully developed, touch serves as the primary avenue for feeding, warmth, and bonding.
Children need to experience healthy, loving touch. They need it from their fathers. Words are not always enough, and sometimes are not effective in reaching certain kids in certain situations. As men we need to explore ways to utilize haptic communication to provide connection with our children. This can come in many forms- kissing, hugging, the way you pick up and hold your child when they are sad or scared, wrestling or other sports/physical activity, holding their hand while walking or when showing them how to complete a task, and tucking them in before bed. My 5 year-old son loves getting his back scratched. He will plop himself down beside me, crawling under my arm and lifting up the back of his shirt. No words are exchanged. We share these quiet moments of touch and connection, and our relationship becomes stronger as a result. When boys receive frequent healthy, loving touch from their fathers they feel safe and important. Learning how this type of nurturing looks and feels allows them to grow into more caring and nurturing partners and fathers as they get older. In a world today where distance and non-contact is preached and enforced everywhere, we need to make sure our children are getting enough closeness and touch when at home. No matter how old my sons get, I will continue to kiss them and hug them (and should my health allow, continue to body slam them) as much as humanly possible, for as long as they will allow me.
Brian Berger is a licensed mental health counselor and the owner of Affirming Words LLC, a therapy practice specializing in working with men, children, adolescents, and families, with the mission of helping men and fathers discover identity, define purpose, and find joy in family connections. He believes together we are ready to contribute to the solution of outdated gender norms of males being too tough, too strong, too capable and too busy to engage in vulnerability, do deep emotional work, or be present for family relationships, and that the world will be a better place when we offer these opportunities for growth and expression to men, fathers and children. Discover more about his mission by visiting his website www.affirmingwords.org or contacting him directly at [email protected].