“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.