Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The whole touch thing

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.

How sad.


Harold Jarche said...

You may be interested in this post by my friend Rob Paterson

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Harold. Very interesting. As I commented on Rob's post, I first encountered that experiment with the monkeys when I was 8 - we had the whole Time Life hardcover library, and I read them all cover to cover.

Not to shoot my own thoughts on touch in the foot, I always wondered there was any possibility that the baby monkeys chose the cloth "mommies" because they afforded better concealment.

Anamaria Camargo said...

I totally understand what you’re saying, Karyn. I didn’t know this issue of touching was so sensitive in the UK… I knew about it from reading/hearing stories from friends working in the US. For most Brazilians, not aware of such cultural differences, these stories are as hard to believe as fairy tales. In Brazil, a teacher who doesn’t cuddle a scared child for fear of being accused of sexual abuse would be considered paranoid and inadequate for the job. Touching is a very strong cultural characteristic of Brazilians, and I remember it took me some time to understand I shouldn’t touch my peers and teachers while I was a High School exchange student in the US. Of course we’re not free from abusers—far from it. But I wonder if they are more numerous here than in places where all kinds of touch are suspicious.

James said...

Ahh bless, next time I'm in bedford I'll give you a hug. This is a subject close to my heart with my counselling background and shiatsu qualifications. I blame HR departments for this one, for ritualising touch out of existence, a firm handshake or nothing. As far as I can tell if you are the kind of person who will touch inappropriately then no amount of HR law will stop it, and it simply penalises the vast majority of people who do use touch appropriately.

Anonymous said...

How interesting that Anamaria and James are both native to the southern hemisphere. I wonder if there's anything in that...

Anamaria - I think you'll find that the touch issue is even more of a hot potato here in the UK than it is in the US. Mind you, I didn't realise it was such an issue there. Because US citizens are so much more open, I had assumed that they would be fairly relaxed on the touch thing. Hmm.

James - you rebel! You'll get yourself had up for something-or-other ;-) But my concern isn't so much about myself - it's about the wider culture, and particularly about the impact on children.

Thoughful aside: I notice I'm finding it increasingly inappropriate to refer to US citizens as Americans, since there's so much more to the Americas that the US. Interesting development - I wonder if it will be permanent.

Harold Jarche said...

I live in North America and we call US citizens Americans. The USA appropriated the term in 1776, so even if I live in the Americas, I'm Canadian, at least by common language usage.

Janet Clarey said...

Ugh. The whole touch things makes me crazy. Darn lawyers. Darn media. It's even an issue in corporations. I worked at a very conservative organization at the home office. The company has several regional offices in the US. I had worked for a period of time with a supervisor in our Richmond, Virginia office. I think the general feeling here in the US is that southern folks are friendlier than northern folks. I'm not sure that's true but anyway...the supervisor from Virginia came to the home office and we saw each other in the cafeteria. He came over and gave me a big hug. I hugged back of course. The looks we got from the conservative home office anti-culture to show any sort or affection. Ugh. I hated it. So different now at Brandon Hall. We hug and kiss whenever we see each other. My kids are not so fortunate at school. I feel bad for them...