In the past few days, a couple of things have happened that have made me wonder (not for the first time) if haven't gone a bit overboard in our attitude toward touch.
This was sparked off by a tongue-in-cheek email comparing school in 2007 (unfavourably) with school in 1957. While it (probably deliberately) overlooks such things as the utter mismanagement of learning difficulties/disabilities in 1957, it does... erm... touch on the issue of physical contact.
There is reference to the matter of corporal punishment, but those worms are staying in that can - I am not even going to go there.
That aside, there is this little gem:
Scenario: Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort him.
1957 - In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.
2007 - Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy
I remember arguing with my classmates over whose turn it was to sit in the teacher's lap during story time. I remember being held in my teacher's arms as I was rushed to the doctor after I had fallen and split my lip clean through.
In 2000, I started a chess club at my children's primary school. On our very first afternoon, a thunderstorm coincided with the session. At the very first clap of thunder, one 5 year old girl squealed and dived at me. She thrust her head up under my jumper and would not move. She was quivering like a plucked guitar string. I supervised most of that session with a child-appendage. Towards the end of the session, the storm abated and my child-appendage detached itself and played a game of chess, just as another child in the group lost his third game in quick succession. He roared and turned the table over, narrowly avoiding injuring his opponent. I ordered him to sit quietly to one side for a moment. Once he appeared to have regained his equilibrium, I sat down in front of him, took his hands in mine and talked to him about self control and consideration for others. I wiped his copious nose on a tissue and set him a chess puzzle to solve.
After the session was over, the head teacher told me that I was never again to make this kind of physical contact with the children for fear of reprisals from parents. I was astonished.
At around the same time, I started a new job teaching basic IT skills to new users, most of whom were getting to, or well into, their silver years. Using the mouse was a new concept to them, and they made all the mistakes that crop up in stereotypical jokes... I mean ALL of them. We had a little game they could play to develop mouse control, but for one lady, it was just too alien. She was almost in tears as she turned to me and wailed "I just can't get it!" I did exactly what I would have done in my far-more-tactile homeland: I placed my hand over hers on the mouse so that she could learn the association between the movement of the mouse on the pad and the movement of the pointer on screen. She snatched her hand away as if she had been stung and shot me a look that could have split a diamond.
I have since learnt to accommodate the British reserve and now keep myself well and truly to myself, even though I sometimes have to sit on my hands to do so. Recently when a colleague was in floods of tears, I ached just to give her a hug and let her cry it out on my shoulder. Instead I found myself feeding her tea and platitudes. Bleagh!
Surely no touch at all is as harmful to the healthy development of the psyche as inappropriate touch?
A couple I once knew sponsored an ex-street child from a residential project called Highway Home in Cape Town. Edward had been alone on the street since the age of 5. The back of his head was bald. Christine and Mike used to take him to their home for one weekend a month, to accustom him to the concept of home and family. Early on, they realised that Edward was bald because of a peculiar habit of rolling his head from side to side repeatedly when he lay down to sleep. He was assessed for autism. Negative. A child psychologist decided that this was Edward's substitute for physical contact and affection, since he had never been cuddled. Fortunately, Mike and Christine were very demonstrative people. Whenever Edward came to stay, they lavished affection on him. They brought him with them to church and he would spend the whole meeting on their laps with their arms around him. Not only that, but association with their family and friends meant that he became accustomed to incidental touch, too.
He stopped rolling his head from side to side and his hair grew back. He finished high school. I lost contact with them after that, so I can't tell you what became of Edward. I know that one member of that first group went on to study law at university, but whether it was Edward or not, I can't say for sure.
I know that we're trying to protect children from predators, but are we not depriving them of a very real need? Is it just a cultural thing that makes me ache for a time when people... well, I dare not say "touched each other" because that has come to have unseemly connotations.