My 6-year-old daughter came home from school with tears in her eyes the other day. She told me that she got in trouble for holding hands with her friend.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. Last week when she wanted to give her friend a hug, she was reminded by a teacher to keep her hands to herself.
It’s confusing to her, this restriction on touch. For the first six years of her life, touching had been something that’s a warm and loving part of her world. Suddenly, for seven hours a day, she’s not allowed any physical contact.
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Her instincts to touch are well founded. There have been a number of studies that show how beneficial touch is to our well-being. A study done by Tiffany Field, a leader in the field of touch, found that preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment. French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen discovered that when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class.
Despite all this evidence, the overall culture in the United States is not one of close physical contact. The psychologist Sidney Jourard made an informal study of the frequency of touch in various countries. In Puerto Rico, he counted 180 touches per hour between two people. In France, it was 110. In the USA, it was two.
This past summer, we took our children on a European trip. We saw friends walking arm in arm through the streets of Paris, mothers snuggling with their toddlers in Rome, and young couples stroking each other’s faces in Ibiza.
Two years ago, when we went to Israel to visit family, there was even more touching. Siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and even friends snuggled close together while they talked, punctuating their sentences with hand strokes or arm rubs.
This is the culture that my daughter has grown up in. Ours is a home of fierce cheek kisses and goofy belly bumps. A home of bone-crushing hugs and gentle shoulder rubs. A home of hand holding, leg rubbing, head resting, arm wrestling love.
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I understand that the classroom is primarily a place to learn and that gentle touches can quickly escalate to more disruptive rough and tumble play…but it does seem like there should be a middle ground. For many kids, first grade is the first time they’ve been separated from their parents for any length of time. I know how difficult this has been for my daughter. She’s been craving extra affection when she gets home, sometimes barely wanting to leave my side.
As far as I know, our school has no official ban on touch. My older boys have told me about hugs that they’ve gotten from teachers or friendly pats from the principal. But, when students reach out to be affectionate or playful with each other, adults generally step in to stop them.
How much more pleasant school would be for my daughter if she could cuddle next to a good friend while she works through her struggle with learning to read, or hold hands with her classmate as they go into the big intimidating cafeteria, or get a hug from her brother when she sees him outside for recess.
I’m having trouble deciding how to handle this. Should I just explain to her that this is the way school works and encourage her to adjust, or should I intervene and talk to the teacher about how much she is craving touch?
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I want to do something to help her. But, as soon as I start thinking about my little girl at school all day without even being able to hold her friend’s hand, I get too upset to make a rational decision.
I think I need a hug.