A middle school in Canada was in the news recently for their “no loving, no shoving” policy, which is intended to prevent violence and sexual contact. Schools in Arizona, New Jersey and elsewhere have attempted to implement similar no-touch initiatives. It seems the old adage “keep your hands to yourself” — once reserved for school assemblies and cafeterias — has slowly crept its way into hallways, classrooms, playgrounds … and policies.
We have had roughly 30 years of “good touch/bad touch” programs in schools and communities, but almost all of the attention has been on bad touch. When we ban touch altogether, there are no opportunities for healthy contact. That is a huge loss. The health benefits of touch are well-known, from stress relief to lowered blood pressure. But in school, the main benefit of touch is to build friendships and human connections, whether it is brushing one another’s hair or roughhousing playfully. Like adults, children touch to say hello and goodbye, to express affection, to test their strength, and to give and receive comfort.
Children need to be protected from violence and sexual assault, but we can’t monitor their physical contact every moment of their childhoods, so we need to give them the chance to work out the vast area of healthy contact. Some people worry that we can’t trust kids to know the difference between healthy affection and unwanted sexual behavior, but couldn’t you tell the difference when you were in middle school? As a commenter pointed out on the blog Free Range Kids: “O.K. so yes there are bad hugs. I was the victim of a few in the years between grades 8 to 10. These are unwanted forced hugs. Boys deciding to hug you after you’ve said no, or letting their hands ‘slip’ during a hug. These types of hugs were followed up by a ‘How dare you!’ and anger. It was very much known it was not acceptable by anyone’s standards. We didn’t need the schools to police it. If it kept happening THEN we would talk to the administration.”
(MORE: Are Hugs the New Handshakes?)
Young people also know more about violent vs. nonviolent touch than we give them credit for. Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who studies recess and rough-and-tumble play, has found that children can tell play fighting from real fighting much better than adults. Yet adults continue to believe that they are protecting children when they ban roughhousing. No-touch policies in elementary schools are motivated more by safety than worries about sexual contact, but in reality, safety is sometimes a code word to disguise schools’ burning desire for order. Young children need to touch each other — we all need human contact — and they need to slowly figure out what’s appropriate and what’s not.
Meanwhile, the Canadian middle-school girls who ran afoul of their school’s no-touch policy plan a hug-in on June 20 as a playful protest. We trust them; so should their school.