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When Did a Big Hug Become a Bad Thing?

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There was a time when the conventional wisdom was that we needed four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs a day to maintain, and 12 to grow. Later, as media reports of sexual assault cases spread like viruses, along with fear of lawsuits, educators and children were schooled in "bad touch" versus "good touch" (a hug was one of the latter). Now, more and more, we have no touch.

America has always been a low-touch society, but this is getting ridiculous. When teacher education programs begin advising its students to put up a high-five when a kid requests a hug, and teachers' unions instruct educators to refrain from touching kids at all, as reported in a recent Education Week blog, it's time to take a step back and reassess our priorities.

According to an article on the website of the Council for Exceptional Children, the Pennsylvania State Education Association offers the following guidelines on the use of touch: (1) consider the age, sex, and perception (maturity) of the child, (2) use touch only to praise or comfort, (3) ensure there is another adult present, and (4) briefly touch only the shoulder or arm.

Can't you see it now? A young child (how does that apply to guideline number one?) is crying and desperately in need of comfort (that meets guideline number two). But your co-teacher is out on the playground with some of the other children (number three isn't possible!), so you tentatively pat the child on the shoulder (phew, number four applied!) and say, "There, there." The child isn't remotely comforted, but you can rest assured that you've followed guidelines and are in no jeopardy of being sued for child abuse.

But isn't this child abuse? According to Frances Carlson, author of Essential Touch: Meeting the Needs of Young Children, physical contact can be more important to sustaining life than food and water! As she told me in an interview for Body, Mind and Child, children need physical contact in order to thrive and grow in every aspect of development. She cited research indicating that when children are denied touch, they fail to grow physically and to develop the emotional and social skills they need to succeed in early childhood and in life.

Dr. Lisa Fiore, Director of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University, who joined Frances and me for the discussion, pointed out that it's not just in school that children aren't getting the touch they need. Our changing society has resulted in "people engaging in activities requiring less physical contact every day."

When we consider the amount of time children are spending in front of television and computer screens, the lack of opportunity for old-fashioned rough-and-tumble play, and reports of children as old as four and five being pushed in strollers (meaning their hands aren't even being held), we begin to realize just how seldom the child's need for touch is being met.

Ironically, my guests pointed out that when men teach young children, the little ones are more likely to have their touch needs met because men engage in more physical play than women do. They're also more likely than female teachers to have a hand on the child's back while engaging in conversation. But, sadly, it is the touch from the male teacher that is most suspect of all.

Ms. Carlson recommended that, rather than no-touch policies, schools begin to establish "touch" policies that explain the boundaries of what touch looks like in education settings, and that help teachers and parents understand that denying children touch is as problematic as denying access to rest, water, or the bathroom.

Dr. Fiore ended by asking, "Wouldn't it be lovely to embrace touching in the classroom as appropriate and developmentally necessary?"

Wouldn't it be lovely, indeed, if we could put the children's needs ahead of our fears? Even if we discount the research, along with conventional wisdom, we at least should ask ourselves: if we're craving a hug, is a high-five really gonna cut it?