Getting in touch

“You touch me down
Down to my soul”

I recently overheard an experienced educator advising a teacher-in-training that she should never touch a student, for any reason. Just to be legally safe. I was horrified. Fortunately, further research showed that the situation is not quite so dire. The Victorian Institute of Teaching, for example, suggests that touching to “comfort, guide or acknowledge the student” is appropriate.

I find it interesting, however, that the default advice was “just don’t do it – it’s not safe.” It didn’t come as quite the surprise it might have, either, because several times I have touched students on the shoulder in class, and they have almost flinched from the contact – they clearly find it strange and unusual. On Thursday I bumped into a student accidentally, and his friends were jokingly advising him to sue for assault. This is the climate we have created for ourselves – where touch is unusual, unexpected, alarming, and possibly culpable.

There are acres of research studies proving the benefits of touch. Premature babies used to be carefully sequestered in sealed humidicribs, only touched via rubber gloves and medical appliances, until some bright spark discovered something that many parents instinctively know – babies need to be touched. Desperately ill babies improved dramatically with kangaroo care, where babies are held skin to skin with their parents. Kangaroo care increases survival rates, lowers rates of infection, as well as reducing serious illnesses. It also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Touch therapy, in the form of massage, has been shown to decrease pain, increase mood, and increase the body’s cancer-fighting cells (natural killer cells and lymphocytes) in women with breast cancer.  In other studies it has been shown to improve immune response and lower stress and blood pressure in healthy adults.

We need touch. We are social, tactile beings who reinforce our relationships and our very health by physically connecting with each other. True, there are times and ways of touching that are inappropriate, but in avoiding touch altogether we do more than throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’re actively wounding ourselves, and our society.

“You wake me up speaking dreams of dawn
I reach and touch the fine lines time has born
For all the world I wouldn’t change my place
Your mixed up tears falling on my face

You touch me down
You touch me down
Down to my soul
Down to my soul” —  Paul Kelly

I am a very tactile person, and I’ve long been aware of the importance of touch in my life. I am huggy with my friends, and have been known to seek (or even beg for) hugs when under stress. Yet despite my awareness of the power of touch, I find it difficult to bridge that gap with new people, where rules are not yet established. It’s always difficult to ask for that first hug. Worse, though, is the situation for men, who may never ask – especially in the workplace – for fear of being guilty of sexual harassment.

We seem to have allowed ourselves to become terrified of touch. We keep our distance from each other on public transport. We refrain from anything more than a handshake in the workplace. We keep ourselves tightly to ourselves. Yet children instinctively understand the importance of touch, and they seek it often, particularly under stress. They fly like homing birds to their parents, and fling themselves into our arms – and it makes everything better.  To quote a Baby Blues cartoon: “500 years of medicine and they still haven’t topped the hug.”

We train kids out of touch, just as we are training our society out of it. And we are immeasurably poorer, and demonstrably sicker, as a result. Feeling a little under the weather? Reach out and touch somebody.

Don’t tell me it’s easy

I must admit I am truly lucky. This is a very good time to need a gluten free diet. It is easier than ever before to find gluten free food in ordinary supermarkets, rather than specialty shops. It is possible to dine out now, and I can even eat fast food without risking poisoning.

But (you knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you?) it is a long, long hike from “easier than it was” to “easy“. It is not easy. I can’t just walk into a restaurant and assume they will be able to feed me. I estimate around 80% of restaurants and cafes still answer “um… gosh… no… sorry about that!” when I ask if they have anything gluten free.

A further 10% of places will be able to offer me a cookie. Just the one. Usually choc chip (hey, there’s an upside). True, choc chip cookies make a lovely snack, but they don’t quite cut the mustard when you’re looking for a meal. Oh, and speaking of mustard – that’s probably not gluten free, either. In those places where there are gluten free options, they are frequently massively restricted and disappointingly plain – steak without any of the sauce options, for example. No chips (due to cross contamination), and few, if any salads (dressings, croutons, more cross contamination issues). Definitely no desserts.

This is not the problem that it used to be, because there are websites all over the place offering lists of restaurants that do gluten free. If I do my research in advance, I can usually find somewhere to eat.  But often I get stranded, as I did this week, somewhere where there is nothing I can eat. I spent two days this week on a university campus where there was one cafe, with one safe food option – a small packet of plain potato chips. Once again, not a winner in the “satisfying meal” stakes. At times like these I have to carry my day’s food with me, and if I get hungry, or want a little extra snack… well… oh… gosh. Sorry.

On Monday, as I unpacked my lunch, I nearly dropped it – and it dawned on me that, if I had, that would have been it. I’d have gone hungry, except for whatever sustenance I could gain from a small packet of chips (always assuming they hadn’t run out of the plain ones – the others all contain gluten). Oh, and a latte. (Not a cappucino, of course – there’s usually gluten in the chocolate powder.)

Some cafes proudly display “gluten free” cakes – on the same plate as glutenous ones. Or they’ll serve them with the same tongs. That’s enough to poison me (I won’t disturb you with the details), so I can’t risk it. My workplace has (literally) nothing I can eat in the on-site cafe. They can’t provide meals for me when they provide them for the other staff, because there is nothing on their supplier’s menu that is safe (to be fair, my food also has to be yeast free and fructose friendly, so it’s a big ask). I don’t blame my workplace for this – they have tried very hard to accommodate me, but they simply don’t have the means.

So I am used to providing my own food. And I am lucky that I can buy stocks of safe snacks and keep them at work in case I get peckish.  With a little planning, it’s all good. But it does take planning. I do sometimes get grumpy and wish I could slack off and just buy my lunch once in a while.

Gluten free food is a lot more visible on the collective radar that it used to be, but it’s still painfully far from universal. So don’t tell me it’s easy. Instead, next time you decide on the spur of the moment to check out that nice little cafe you’re passing, do your own little bit for awareness raising, and ask them if they have any gluten free meals. My digestive system, and many, many others, thanks you.

Build ’em up, build ’em up, build ’em high

There is a popular parenting theory going around at the moment that says you should always say 6 positive things to kids for every negative one. It’s a nice idea, but one that’s pretty difficult to achieve in the hurly burly of every day life. It’s much easier to grump about something they are (or are not) doing, than to think of 6 positive things to say. An easier technique is the “feedback sandwich,” where you say a positive thing, a negative, and then a positive. This is a common teaching strategy.

Dealing with young kids you might say “I love the robot you built, but it really bugs me when you don’t clean up the mess you make. The robot’s great – it looks very lifelike.” It’s a neat way of making sure that they don’t get defensive, and means your point is more likely to get across. It also means they don’t get ground down by incessant negativity.

Most people understand the need to be positive with kids, even if we don’t always apply it. But I think we sometimes forget the need to be positive with each other. Adults need praise, positivity and encouragement just as much as small people (sometimes more!), yet we don’t seem to be very good at it, as a society. We have a tendency to be stand-offish, reserved and cautious. We leap to criticism, (“this steak isn’t rare!” “You’re late!” “This isn’t good enough!” ) but find it harder to compliment.

Praise can be difficult to accept graciously. It’s hard to know what to say when someone compliments you, and it’s often easier to duck the praise or be self-deprecating than to agree with it and risk looking smug. But perhaps that’s because we don’t get enough practice.

Sometimes we don’t praise because we are afraid of being misinterpreted – especially if we’re praising someone of the opposite sex. I can’t help feeling that it’s worth the risk, though. In the chaos of increasingly busy, hard-working lives, we get used to telling each other what’s wrong, and taking for granted the bits that are right.

The interesting thing is that praising others can give you a bigger lift than being praised yourself. That feedback mechanism that happens when you make someone else smile causes real emotional and physiological changes in your own body, that can even impact on your state of health.

It’s odd, then, that praising people can feel as though you are taking an emotional risk. It’s making a more personal connection, even if you are just complimenting the barista in your local cafe. It’s exposing your feelings, and that can be a confronting thing to do.

It’s a bit like abseiling – that first step’s a doozy. Stepping over the cliff is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you can bring yourself to make that leap of faith, the trip down the cliff face may be the ride of your life.

One of the interesting side effects of writing has been that I can praise people remotely – write positive things about them from the safety of my computer. It’s much easier to expose your feelings without looking someone in the eye! But I’ll then send them a link to the article, or print it out for them, and I have become utterly hooked on their reactions, to the extent that I now do it in real life, too.

When having lunch with a friend gives me a real boost, I’ll tell them so. When a barista makes a beautiful fern pattern in my latte, I comment on it. It gives me a real buzz. It’s the perfect win-win situation. By making others feel good, I get a powerful lift myself. Next time you’re feeling flat, give it a try. Say something nice to someone else and see what happens.

Genuine and specific compliments are the most powerful. And when someone does something that you appreciate, take that small risk and appreciate it out loud. The results might surprise you.

The case against hitting

Stephen Fry once wrote* that he couldn’t think of any convincing, rational and unemotional reason why corporal punishment is a bad idea. He argued that it is all a matter of context – of what children find normal. Children who know that hitting is a normal form of punishment, he claimed, are not greatly disturbed by being hit. Emotional abuse is far more destructive, and the effects longer lasting, than physical punishments such as caning or smacking.

It is certainly true that emotional abuse has a lasting impact, but I feel that the most dangerous aspect of physical abuse is one that I have never yet seen articulated:  whatever your weapon of last resort – the most explosive tool in your parenting toolbox – there will be times when it doesn’t work. There will always be times where you want and need something more, regardless of how powerful your best weapon is. Something bigger. Something worse.

wooden spoon

If hitting is your worst tool, what will you do when it doesn’t work? What will happen when you crack and go further than you ever intended, if you are already comfortable with hitting your children?

The issue is that children will always push the boundaries, both intentionally and unintentionally. They will inevitably do dumb things – things that they may regret as much, or even more than you. They will suffer lapses of judgement. They will lash out. They will make mischief. It is part of exploring the nature of the world, and it is also part of having a relatively undeveloped brain with, as yet, poor impulse control. Kids do stuff they shouldn’t. And they go through phases, for whatever reason, when they do lots of that stuff. They shout. They lie. They break things. They hurt people.

Regardless of how effective your behaviour management techniques are, there will be times when they just don’t work. And, being human, there will be times when you fail to manage your own behaviour – when you lash out, lose control. and go further than you intended. If you already hit, what will going further look like?

It turns out that research bears this out emphatically. Countries like Sweden, where all forms of corporal punishment are completely banned,  have found a commensurate drop in deaths due to child abuse. Sweden introduced a ban on hitting children in 1979, and by the mid 1980s the death rate due to child abuse was a third of that in the US. (Before you complain about the juxtaposition of those two facts, I couldn’t find any figures that allowed direct comparison.) Tellingly, although the Swedish population has increased, the child homicide rate has continued to decrease.

It is interesting to note that although Swedish law has discouraged violence against children for decades (since the 1950s, in fact), in 1971 35% of Swedish parents believed corporal punishment was sometimes necessary. In 1981, a mere two years after the law banning hitting entirely was introduced, the rate was down to 26%, and by 1994 it was down to 11%. Corporal punishment is no longer considered normal in Sweden.

This is a very plausible case of cause and effect. The Swedish legislators said all along that the intent of the law was to change public attitudes to child abuse. There was little or no punishment for parents who transgressed, but the increase in reporting meant that families in trouble were more likely to get early help and intervention. Knowing that it was illegal meant that hitting simply died out. The same legislation outlawed emotional abuse – much harder to police, of course, but another clear message about what was and wasn’t acceptable.

We’re all human. Adults and kids alike do things we shouldn’t, and things we regret. If you don’t normally hit, then any loss of control is likely to be milder than if hitting is a usual part of your repertoire. Kids will be kids, and there will inevitably be times when you shake your head and don’t know what to do. When nothing you have works, and you feel as though you need something more effective.

There will always be times when we go too far. It’s the definition of “too far” that’s important.




*in his autobiography, “Moab is my washpot”

Teaching myself a lesson

After years of being an academic, this year I have become a teacher in a secondary school. Academics don’t need any teaching qualifications (long story for another blog), so I am working on a Dip Ed while I teach.

With years of tertiary teaching experience and a PhD in Computer Science Education, I thought I knew how to teach. And it’s true that being in front of a class holds no fears for me. I know a fair bit about pedagogy and the principles of learning and teaching. But teaching in a school has come as a huge shock. Not because of behaviour management – I am exceptionally lucky in my school and my students, so there haven’t been any drastic issues, and I don’t expect there will be. Not because I am standing up in front of a group of adolescents and expecting them to pay attention – by and large they do. Just because of the sheer, mind-blowing intensity of the job.

I am part time, and working far more than my allotted hours, and still not getting everything done. From the moment I arrive at school to the moment I leave (invariably late), I am running, sometimes physically, but always mentally. Then there is the catch up work at home, for all the urgent things I didn’t get done during the day. And this is without considering the study I am supposed to be doing to gain my qualification.

I have to force myself to stop for lunch, to actually talk to my colleagues and make a sanity break during the day, and what both fascinates and horrifies me is that I am not alone in this kind of obsessive, workaholic behaviour. Far from it. It seems to be characteristic of the teachers in my school. Perhaps my school is atypical (in many ways it is actually unique), but I suspect it is a characteristic of teachers who care about their work, and about their students.

A colleague recently blogged about how she struggles with the conversation that ensues after she meets someone and says that she is a teacher. The classic response is “oh, you’re so lucky, you get so many holidays!” For the first time I have come to realise how deserved those holidays are – together with the fact that they will inevitably be filled with work. I am looking forward to first term holidays already, because they will give me a chance to catch up on the work that I am not finding time for now.

My 7 year old, who was initially proud of me being a teacher, turned around last weekend and said “I don’t want you to be a teacher any more, Mummy! You work too much!”   When I told my mentor at school about this, he laughed. “Don’t worry, Linda, tell her there’s always school holidays!”

I retorted, “Look me in the eye and tell me I won’t be working during the holidays,” and he grinned and deliberately turned his back. I know as well as he does that he works a lot during the holidays. And I know I will too. At least I can be home with my kids while I do it, but I am not sure that they will be hugely comforted by that.

Teaching is amazingly intense. I dare say there are jobs like medical and emergency response that are more intense, and more draining, but not many. And I am happier, and more proud of what I do than I have ever been before. Yet I got more respect when I said I was a lecturer in Computer Science (standard response: “You must be SO smart!”) than when I say I am a teacher (those holidays again).

I am so smart. Smart enough to realise that this is one of the most important, draining, and rewarding jobs I could ever do. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s Saturday night, and I have work to do.