CYC-Online 94 NOVEMBER 2006
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Don't touch

Mark Smith

My wife went to the physiotherapist recently. As he worked on her injury he chatted away. He had just had a strange experience with his previous patient, he told her. The patient had come in complaining of a sore knee – or shoulder or whatever part of her body it was. The physio said to her, as physios do, “OK, let’s have a look.” The patient’s response took him aback. “Don’t touch me" she said. He tried to explain, “I’m a physiotherapist ... that’s what I do.” But no, she just wanted exercises.

Personally I would feel a bit cheated if I go to a physiotherapist and don’t come away feeling I’ve been suitably pummelled. I’ve no idea what might have happened to this woman in the past to provoke her reaction, but it struck me as being reflective of wider trends in society, and in particular in professions that work with children – fix me but do it from a distance seems to be the expectation. As a former colleague used to put it, “They want us to change the engine oil without getting our hands dirty.” It’s a dangerous trend for both children and those who work with them.

Personally, I wasn’t particularly touchy-feely in practice. I had to work at bringing myself to put an arm around kids. And just when I was becoming pretty comfortable in doing so, touching kids started to be frowned upon. Similarly, I wasn’t particularly good at toy-fighting or horseplay; I never quite mastered the levels of dexterity required. But I had colleagues who were naturally tactile and some who were particularly good at engaging in horseplay with kids. And of course the kids loved this. Horseplay is now a no-no in most official dictats on how we should care for kids. It can be implicated in abuses of strength and power or worse, in sexual arousal. Somehow or other staff have internalised this version of events. Yet, as Steve Biddulph says, if you want to get along with boys, learn how to wrestle. Properly managed horseplay is how boys (and many girls) get to know where the boundaries lie, how they can learn to play by the rules and, perhaps most importantly, how they can experience essential physical contact with other human beings in culturally acceptable ways. If we don’t offer adaptive means through which kids can get this physical contact they may well seek it out in maladaptive ways, through initiating restraints.

Other examples come to mind. I have followed cases recently where staff in residential child care have been accused and indeed prosecuted for abusing children in their care. One of the things that disturbs me in this is that many of the allegations levelled at individuals could be interpreted as daily acts of care. Practices, such as taking kids into your own home, which were once commonplace are represented as though they are reflect some prima facia indication of abusive intent. I still believe that taking kids into your own home can give powerful messages of acceptance and connection to those we work with. Indeed we construct our child care system around strangers taking kids into their own homes; we call it fostering. Bizarrely this becomes problematic when residential care workers do it. What does that tell us about the way in which residential care has been demonised?

Another practice which was represented in coverage of recent cases as inherently suspect was of male staff entering girls' bedrooms to get them up in the mornings. If that, in itself, is suspect then a good number of us would have to plead guilty. In fact I’d have to plead guilty to an aggravated offence – that of inciting abuse. I used to tell staff to personalise how they got kids up in the morning, not merely shouting from the corridor but taking time over the whole process, going into rooms, opening curtains, ruffling hair; in short waking kids up the way that you might want to be woken yourself, or the way you might wake your own kids up. And of course there are particular rituals of care that emerge between individual members of staff and particular kids, which emerge in everyday events such as getting kids up, rituals which are meaningful to those who are party to them but which can be constructed as more sinister by outside observers. When we fail to discriminate between normal and healthy acts of care and genuinely abusive behaviour: when officials deliberately construct particular practices as being “unprofessional” or against the rules, then we force those who do care either to ignore or to subvert the dictats that get in the way of caring. And of course when they do this, they immediately place themselves under a veil of suspicion. It is a situation that introduces an inevitable dissonance to adult-child relationships. Researchers and other commentators are increasingly picking up the absurdity of this.

Heather Piper and her colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University have completed a fascinating study of touch in education and care settings. They conclude that current practice is borne out of a culture of fear rather than one of care; it is more about the avoiding litigation than it is to do with concern for the child. What really intrigues me, though, is some of the tantalising paradoxes such research brings to the surface. Richard Webster develops this theme -

Martin Luther succinctly formulated the “paradox of purity” when he observed that “the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get”. What he was implicitly recognising was the fascination of sin – that the more any appetite or impulse is cast into the realm of the unclean by those who pursue purity, the more psychologically compelling it becomes. The pursuit of purity thus actually serves to promote an imaginative obsession with anything that has been explicitly or implicitly defined as obscene.

We have to begin to question whether our obsession with child abuse actually fuels the very behaviours it is calculated to avoid.

As I said, it is not just academics who are beginning to question the paranoia which surrounds our current relationships with children and childhood. Political commentators are also doing so. A growing number of concerned adults are speaking out against the ludicrous regulation of child care – of the need for every adult who ever has contact with a child to be subject to a police check; and not just one police check. Personally I am police checked as a foster carer, as a football coach (for both my kids' school and the local boys club), as a prison visitor and now as a university lecturer – on the grounds apparently that I might hit on 17-year-old students – chance would be a fine thing.

It is a madness that is poisoning inter-generational relationships. A paper outlining how stupid this level of regulation is can be found at the link below. It also links to a petition:

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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