Outlawing healthy contact ignores social and personal benefits, writes Nicola Power.
It was with regret that I listened to a television news report of another school banning hugging during school time. This ban was seemingly precipitated by a girl hugging a friend and subsequently being given detention.
While there is a need for boundaries to be set regarding touch between people, it seems that many of us in the Western world have lost sight of the importance of this basic human act. Media reports relating to touch are often derogatory and people's concern about touch being misinterpreted may feed the public concern regarding this important non-verbal form of communication.
The plethora of research that provides us with a clear understanding of how beneficial positive touch like hugging can be is overwhelming and yet we continue to focus on the negativity surrounding touch. It is indeed understandable that abhorrent acts such as domestic violence, rape and assault cause us to be wary of unwelcome physical touch and I do not wish to detract from the devastating and long-lasting effects of these appalling acts. However, simple gestures of positive touch can enhance wellbeing in an era where there appears to be a proliferation of social anxiety surrounding touch.
Research from many countries has shown how children who are deprived of touch often suffer physiological and psychological problems (Hertenstein, 2002; Takeuchi, 2009). The earlier in life this occurs, the more serious the implications and outcomes.
However, New Zealand is one of many Westernised countries where anxiety over personal touch persists.
This anxiety appears to be evident in many areas of society, but it is no more so than in our schools. Although guidelines for touching between teachers and students have been relaxed in recent years there still appears to be a reticence to engage in any physical contact as it may be misinterpreted.
A study I conducted showed that male teachers specifically experience tensions and conflict when deciding whether they will comfort an upset child, thus their potential to use human touch to enhance wellbeing is diminished.
One teacher commented that "I had a 6-year-old in my class sobbing uncontrollably as her grandfather had died a few days before. I had to think twice about whether I should put my arm around her to give her comfort and that thought shocked me. How could I even stop to think about it? It's incredibly sad that I went through that thought process."
By broadcasting the fact that hugging in schools is a "bad" activity to engage in, one wonders what messages we are sending children about touching. What are the subliminal implications for them regarding the use of positive touch to help, comfort, welcome or congratulate a friend? Despite the instigation of a no-hugging culture in some of our schools, there is hope on the horizon.
Acknowledging research that indicates great benefits from positive touch, many New Zealand hospitals have adopted a skin-to-skin policy for a newborn baby and its parents, where placing a healthy new-born baby naked on its mother's bare chest immediately after birth has numerous benefits for both. Moreover, in direct conflict with the knee-jerk ban of hugging in some schools, there are some enlightened primary schools that encourage positive touch and have adopted a "massage in schools programme".
Sitting behind each other and over the top of their uniform, young children perform some gentle movements on members of their group to a set routine.
The effects of this regime are well documented, with teachers reporting an increase in concentration and reduction in bullying. However, these schools are more the exception to the rule.
Most schools would appear to encourage distrust over physical contact and suggest removing any contact between children.
Unfortunately, some children rarely experience positive touch in the home and are deprived of this fundamental human need.
In an era where negative touch is unfortunately commonplace, there is absolutely no sound reason for taking away a positive, natural and innocent act between children.
To my knowledge there have been no reports that a hug between two "consenting" children has proved damaging or problematic.
Positive physical contact for children is essential in building relationships and effective psychological development. Perhaps the principals and boards of trustees who believe a ban on hugging between children is appropriate need to read more widely regarding the short and long term impact of touch deprivation in children.
Nicola Power is a senior lecturer in the faculty of health and environmental studies at AUT. Her masters degree focused on the experiences of male primary teachers touching pupils in the classroom.