Kisses and Cuddles In Nurseries: A Touchy Subject? July 31 2013

Once again I find myself compelled and inspired to write a short piece after reading another perceptive article from Suzanne Zeedyk.

Suzanne seems to have the ability to draw attention to issues that cut right through to the heart of some of the troublesome parts of the word we live in today. Her latest article is no different.

Suzanne discusses the importance of adult-child touch in our nurseries. She not only looks at the physiological need for children to have affectionate physical interactions with the adults caring for them like cuddles and kisses. But also the absolute minefield this seems to have become for childcare professionals - 'if I cuddle this crying child someone might point a finger at me'.

The article gives us an overview of the scientific evidence for exactly how and why infants (not just human infants either!) are physiologically programmed to seek out physical contact with the grown ups around  them. Its essential for their survival.

Touch is also an absolute 'must' for building a strong bond with your new baby and we talk about this in our Best Beginnings and Brilliant Babble videos. A strong bond is essential for happy and relaxed interactions with your child and this is the way they learn the language you surround them with.

Working with children professionally myself this rang really true with me but it also spoke to me as a parent. I found myself recalling a conversation I had with a friend just a week ago about this very topic.

She had been telling me about how her husband (a headteacher) was on a school trip on a very a sunny day. In her words she said he had 'broken all his own rules' by having to have lots of  physical contact with the pupils. He had to apply sun cream on an almost industrial level to a constant conveyor belt of frazzled primary aged children. He also had to grab onto a few shoulders and arms here or there to stop the more adventurous types wandering just a bit too near to a cliff edge.

I think anyone reading this - regardless of who they are - will agree that this is a perfectly acceptable use of physical contact by a professional man with young children in his care. In fact I would imagine many a parent would be up in arms if they found out their child had got sunburn or had a terrible fall just because their teacher was worried about any 'comeback' because he had touched their child. And yet this teacher had an inbuilt fear around touching his pupils even when this was a matter of necessity.

I found myself agreeing that it does feel like a bit of a minefield these days. In my work as a therapist I see lots of preschool children who are naturally very affectionate and often seek this out from me in the form of hugs or kisses. This happens more often than not as the therapeutic process can be a very involved and long term event in a young child's life. Often the parent or a member of the nursery staff is present and I don't feel any particular trepidation in accepting a hug from a child or offering my cheek when they offer me a kiss.

But then I found myself saying something a bit alarming to my friend...'But if my manager was watching I know I probably wouldn't hug the child back. I don't know why I just think I might get in trouble for it'. Now that's a bit odd really isn't it? Why would I consciously change my behaviour in front of my manager when I'm doing something that I don't think twice about when unobserved. It makes it sound like I have something to hide. Do I? Yes - my fear of someone else accusing me of something I have not done.

This is precisely what Suzanne asks us to face up to and let go of - fear. By living in fear of an accusation and letting that fear stop us form showing physical affection to children in our care we are perpetuating the cycle of fear which is plaguing the formative years of our children today.

Of course that's not to say that some of this fear is not justified - that would be a naive standpoint to take. Sadly there are just so many examples of child sexual abuse that could be quoted here - and Suzanne's article acknowledges this. But perhaps that collective fear has taken on a life of its own and started encroaching on the instinctive and essential aspects of childcare - if a child is crying we comfort them with a hug.

My friend ended our chat by telling me that her friend had recently signed a consent form for her primary aged child to go on a Brownie's overnight trip. At the end of the form there was an additional line that read 'Please sign if you consent to us giving your daughter a hug if she feels homesick'. My heart sank when she told me and my 'gut wrenched' (to quote Suzanne).

The thought of any child - let alone my own - feeling homesick and sad with people standing by not not allowed to hug her was really appalling to me. But of course we could understand the conundrum the organisation obviously feel they are in. We both agreed that we would be upset if we thought our child would not get a hug if they needed it. I know that one of the reasons why my child's preschool is such a productive and engaging setting is that the staff there are never afraid to share out the hugs, cuddles and kisses whenever required. An idea that comforted me many a time during his settling in period.

Read Suzanne's article to see just how important touch is for our young children. Think about how the collective fear we feel is affecting the emotional resilience (or 'inner teddy bear' as Suzanne calls it) of your kids or those in your professional care.