To kiss or not to kiss my son?

Navigating new and appropriate ways to show physical affection to our tweenage sons has become a topic of interest among some of my friends

My son had some of his friends over the other day and I took the opportunity to invite their mums along as well.

We have bonded well since our boys were assigned to the same Primary 1 class three years ago, and still catch up whenever we can.

While we chatted in the dining room, the boys played elsewhere in the house. Then one of them came over, put his arms around his mother and sank into her warmth for a few seconds.

She smiled and hugged him back. After he left as abruptly as he had appeared, she asked somewhat sheepishly: "Do your boys do this? Still come to you for hugs?"

We nodded.

"I thought what he did was really sweet," I told her. Just as how we would charge our phones whenever the battery runs low, wrapping himself around his mother for a spell clearly rejuvenates him.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Yes, but he would do this at random, multiple times a day, she said. Such as midway through tackling his homework, for instance. "I'm wondering if it's a bit too much," she added.

Another friend expressed the same concern. Her son not only hugs and kisses her in public, but also insists that she reciprocates in kind. He would do this whenever she drops him off at his enrichment class, even with his friends watching.

"I told him to stop embarrassing himself because he is already 10, and everyone is looking. He said, 'Who cares about what other people think?'," she recounted. "I'm the one who feels embarrassed."

At the heart of her exasperation lies a knot of worry. What I see as unbridled affection, she perceives as a sign of immaturity. "I'm scared he will turn into a mummy's boy," she confessed.

Therein lies our dilemma. Much as we adore our sons, we mothers feel compelled to dial down physical demonstrations of our love once they hit a certain age.

Much as we adore our sons, we mothers feel compelled to dial down physical demonstrations of our love once they hit a certain age.

We are all adhering to what clinical psychologist William S. Pollack termed the "boy code" in his 1998 bestseller, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths Of Boyhood.

This, essentially, is society's unhelpful definition of manhood and masculinity, which demands that boys mask or suppress their emotions and vulnerabilities from young so as not to appear weak or needy.

Forcing boys into this gender straitjacket from an early age risks impairing their emotional development for life, warns Dr Pollack.

Boys, he wrote, grow up amid what he calls "society's shame-hardening process". "The idea is that a boy needs to be disciplined, toughened up, made to act like a 'real man', be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that 'big boys don't cry', that he shouldn't be 'a mama's boy'."

Consequently, we become unsure of how intimate we should be with our sons as they approach or enter adolescence, even as they themselves start conforming to social expectations.

Already, I've seen my 10-year-old recalibrate his physical interactions with me in public.

He still hugs me unreservedly at home or among close friends, but no longer flings his arms around me openly.

He still reaches for my hand automatically when we are out, but has, since last year, refused my offers to carry his school bag or anything he happens to be lugging.

He urged me to sign up as a parent volunteer for major school events, but freaked out when his English teacher asked if I could give a talk to his class on essay writing.

"Tell her no," he insisted.

"But why?" I was curious.

"All my friends know you are my mother. It would be so embarrassing."

His explanation didn't quite make sense, but I got it. He wants me around, but not too close. It's not time yet to snip the apron strings, but he needs a longer leash.

I've begun to notice subtle changes in the way he signals his need for physical affection too.

Where once he would clamber freely onto my lap and twine his arms around my neck, he is now more likely to stand close to me, then intone: "You haven't hugged me today."

Or he might sidle up next to me and ask, all cool and casual: "Have you kissed me yet?"

I doubt he would stand for the slobbery routine I have with his seven-year-old sister, who likes me to plaster her face with kisses.

So I opt instead to plant a few firm kisses on the top of his head or give him a peck or two on his temple, mindful of both the duration and location.

He wants me to make the first move, but I take my cues from him.

In front of his friends, I am careful to limit affectionate gestures to a quick ruffling of his hair, say, or a few pats on the shoulder. He has reached the stage where mums can be a major liability.

But even when they morph into sullen teenagers who rebuff or, worse, recoil at our loving gestures, parenting experts advise navigating new and appropriate ways to show our affection instead of severing physical contact. Such displays show that we care, they say, and are integral to their emotional growth.

Laurie A. Couture, a mental health counsellor who wrote the 2008 parenting guide, Instead Of Medicating And Punishing, says parents fear crossing a boundary when they are physically affectionate with their adolescents. "But, really, in the adolescent years, children are the most vulnerable and most in need of the parent's affection."

And mums are usually the primary source of emotional warmth and security for our kids.

Paediatrician Meg Meeker, who has authored several parenting books, argues in Boys Should Be Boys (2008) that "boys feel less anxious about pleasing their mothers because they feel they already have their mother's approval and undying love; things they feel they have to earn from their father".

We are thus well-placed to help build their emotional vocabulary, she adds in a later book, Strong Mothers, Strong Sons. By teaching them to identify and deal appropriately with their feelings as well as those of others, we are helping our sons "to become better future fathers".

So for as long as my son wants and allows it, I will keep dishing out the hugs and kisses. And each time I do, I will pray that it won't be the last.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'To kiss or not to kiss my son?'. Print Edition | Subscribe