My husband walked into the kitchen after work, and I greeted him with a kiss. Our 11-year-old son came upon the scene. He looked us over, then . . . "Break it up!" he pretended to grump. "Can't a guy get a snack around here?"
I knew he was joking, but wondered if there was something more going on.
Was our chaste hello kiss making him uncomfortable? After all, he's on the cusp of puberty, evidenced by his cracking voice and four extra inches. As his sexuality emerges, is it just too weird to think of his parents as, well, sexual?
What is it like for a kid to see his parents kiss?
"It's weird," says Nathan Vogel, 14, who lives in Columbia. Kissing, he says, is not what he wants to see his parents doing: "It's okay to have them pick you up at school, cook you dinner . . . but to see them hold hands or something is odd. I mean, they're your parents."
"That's a pretty typical response for an adolescent," says Benna Sherman, a psychologist who specializes in relationship skills. Younger children, he says, are somewhere between indifferent to and pleased by their parents' affection for each other. "They may not seem to pay much attention. Unconsciously, though, it gives them a feeling of security, that all's right with their world."
But by age 12 or so, a child who's been observing parental embraces without trouble may start to be a little uncomfortable. With the onset of puberty, "What you see your parents doing now calls up feelings within yourself," Sherman explains.
Whether parents snuggle at home or in public also makes a difference. Nathan says that when his parents hold hands while watching a movie in their living room, it's strange, but not embarrassing. But at the school play? "That would be very bad."
So what should parents do? Save their Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) until the kids are 20?
Not at all, says Dan Levy, pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It's an overwhelmingly positive thing for kids to see that their parents like each other. When they worry is when parents aren't getting along."
Children exploring the idea of sexuality are trying to get in touch with their own feelings.
"The child isn't uncomfortable with what you're doing, he's uncomfortable with what he's thinking. And a kid's reaction, even if it's negative, can be a springboard to talk about the changes that are going on," says Levy.
When kids begin to wonder what it's like to kiss someone, they have a lot of questions. Becoming more aware of their parents' mutual affection may bring out some of the issues they're pondering.
Thirteen-year-old Alex Kazanas of Severna Park noticed that his parents weren't being as affectionate as usual. "Alex said, `Hey, Mom, haven't seen much hugging and kissing going on lately,' " his mother, Kim, recalls. "Our family's had some medical problems recently, and I think he was feeling stressed." Kim Kazanas welcomed the opportunity to reassure her son.
As they move into their later teens, many young people have a new appreciation of their parents' fondness for each other.
Lauren Kenyon, 15, of Millersville says she used to be mostly indifferent to her parents' affection. Now when they kiss, she thinks it's sweet. "I see older people holding hands and think, I'm glad my parents are like that. I hope my husband and I are like that," she says.
Lauren sees her parents' loving gestures as evidence that they have a strong marriage.
"We can be in the car driving to the mall, and they'll be arguing, then they'll get out and hold hands," she relates. "That's how their relationship is, they can argue and forgive each other and move on."
So there are times, however, when parents need to be especially sensitive about openly expressing affection. In the case of a blended family, for example, or when a single parent is involved in a new relationship, the situation becomes more complicated. Mom or Dad hugging someone new may not go over too well with kids.
Most children, says Levy, have some negative feelings about their parents not being together. They may need some time to work through those feelings. "Parents need to try to put themselves in their child's position. If they think the child might be uncomfortable for a while, they shouldn't kiss in front of her."
And there's another thing parents should be aware of: Kids like seeing affection, as long as there's no hint of sexuality. That means no suggestiveness, even in fun.
Sherman was reminded of this when she forwarded an e-mail containing a slightly risque pun to her son Michael at college.
"He said he didn't appreciate getting dirty jokes from his mother," she recalls. "And I didn't even think it qualified as a dirty joke!"
Lauren Kenyon understands where Michael Sherman is coming from. She says she doesn't want to consider certain aspects of her parents' relationship. She remembers a scene a few years ago on April 1. "My Mom looked us in the eye and said, `I'm pregnant,' " she recalls. "My brother and I yelled, `Eeeeyewwww, no, that's gross!' We didn't even want to think about it." Fortunately for the Kenyon kids, their parents were April-fooling and weren't insulted.
My own son maintains that he doesn't care if my husband and I kiss. But he enjoyed reporting that a friend's 1-year-old brother screeches like a steaming tea kettle whenever his parents hold hands. Now there's feedback that's tough to ignore.