On Touching Children

In the United States you are not supposed to touch children familiarly unless they are yours, or the spawn of a close friend or family member.  As a teacher I was always very careful to keep my physical distance.  The only time I touched kids was when I was breaking up fights and tearing them apart or when they graduated and were saying goodbye.  There was one time when I flashed a girl my fun bits, but that was on a field trip to the beach and there were no doors on the stalls of the public bathrooms.

When I was a babysitter in college I always asked what the parents wanted me to do when I had to go to the bathroom.  When you haul a baby into the bathroom it is one thing, but when a toddler talks you want permission.  It was never a problem, “So…do you want me to leave your baby alone and unsupervised or do you want them to come into the bathroom with me?”  It was always the latter, but I still felt the need for specific permission.

In Turkey it is completely different.  Strangers pet children on the head and pinch their cheeks.  In a restaurant a toddler might be carried off by a waiter, played with, coddled, given treats and returned a while later.  Children running around in restaurants (1st difference…this is acceptable behavior) may be snatched into laps for kisses and then let go, a Turkish catch and release program.

In Turkey, parents and their children may feel insulted if you do not touch or snuggle their child.  They might feel rejected or unappreciated if they have not received a certain amount of physical attention.  I have gotten used to touching my students.  It was really strange at first.  In the beginning it made me really nervous to touch them, or worse when they touched me.  GAHHH.  They would come up, lean on me , put their heads on my shoulder, or touch my arms.   *Shudder*  I was so accustomed for this to be taboo it took quite a while to become comfortable with the situation.

Nowadays it is easy for me to touch students.  I have actually pinched cheeks.  I tweak their pony tails, rub their heads, pass a hand over their back, rub their arm, give their hands a squeeze.   Occationally I drag them around by their itty bitty neck ties they are required to wear.  They love it.  It makes them feel appreciated and valued.  It gives us a connection, a foundation on which to build a working relationship in the classroom.  I don’t hug my current students, but will my former students.  I kiss their cheeks when they give me presents, whether it is a bracelet or card they made for me or a silk scarf.

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Today I cuddled a child completely unknown to me, I was walking my dog in the park and the situation led me to it.  He was being chased by a street dog, one I know and never bothers me.   I feed him, and his puppies, he usually rolls over for belly rubs from me and has actually protected my small terrier from other street dogs.  About 10, the boy was terrified, the dog wasn’t biting him, but was barking and lunging at him.  He had gone too close to where the puppies were.  He kept running, and the dog was chasing him.  I told him, in my teacher voice, “Stay still, Don’t run.” I was so glad I know all the imperative forms in Turkish from my hall duty experience at school!  “Come here, son.” (In Turkey you only refer to children as “children”, “daughter” or “son”)  So while the dog was lunging at him (I knew the dog wouldn’t hurt us) I hugged him, stroked his face and talked to him.  “It’s ok, let’s go, together  ok…?” My Turkish is still a little weak.  The dog continued to follow and lunge, so I tucked the kid under my arm and held his hands so he wouldn’t get nipped.  Meanwhile I scolded the dog, who then stopped.  But the minute I separated from the boy, the dog started lunging again.  So I put my arm around him, stroked his face and then Butterfinger and I walked him home.  While I could have helped him regardless of the touching, but it made him feel safer, feel comforted.  Without it he might has still felt scared and lost and alone.

Clearly touching needs to be appropriate, but I have learned the value of it with children, the connection it can provide, a link to help a child, encourage, and console.  Maybe I find this interesting because I do not have my own children and discovering how this stuff works.

As with everything, there are pros and cons for each of my countries.  For example, in Turkey people don’t stand in lines, they push their way to the front and fight for service.  But while you are standing there bewildered and waiting your turn, I guarantee that some old lady will haul your kid onto their lap so they don’t have to stand while you figure it out.

The Vicious Dog in question…

Yes, that is him playing with children on the slide.

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13 thoughts on “On Touching Children

  1. This is interesting! Thanks for sharing. I live in Spain and was REALLY surprised how physical the teachers get with the students. Not just in a loving, give me a hug way either. I like being able to give my students a high five or a hug without having to worry about the parents getting mad. But, it still really surprises me when teachers are allowed to bop the students on the head or pull their ears or drag them to a corner for time out. That part I don’t agree with. Does that happen at all in Turkey? or just here in Spain?

  2. Where I grew up, it used to be fairly common to touch kids with whom you weren’t familiar. I see it less often now, but I remember waitresses picking up toddlers and carrying them off for a piece of candy or something. In fact, this happened with my own daughter a while back. Nowadays, this is practiced exclusively by women; however, I remember men patting kids on the head or scooping them up to sit on their laps when I was a child. Men are afraid to touch children now. Men are afraid to be elementary teachers, babysitters, anything, with the exception of pediatricians, that requires them to be around young children. Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t made it to where every single type of touching, even the most lovingly benign, is considered abusive. Touching is an important part of socialization, so I wonder what we are teaching our children when we teach them a quick hug around the shoulders is suspect. It can’t be good.

  3. Great post. I wouldn’t know, but I assume that the touching taboo didn’t exist in the US a few generations ago. I used to have neighbors that were so paranoid of someone hurting their child (they talked a lot about how scared they were of strangers, and they refused to let their daughter play in playgrounds even) that I would stand at least 5 feet away from their daughter and would even try to back up if she came near me. It felt awful, and as shy as the little girl was, the parents said she seemed the most comfortable around me and my ex.

  4. Great post and nice to hear another perspective on this topic! When I lived in Istanbul, I loved it when a waiter would take my friend’s child around the café or restaurant while we conversed child-free. Instant babysitters! 🙂 The only part of it that I didn’t like is when we would get scolded in Turkish for not having a child bundled up or wearing socks even if it was like 75F outside. Then the person would sigh at us yabanci!

  5. Pingback: On Touching Children | WorldWright's …

  6. I totally get this!!! In England we would be in serious trouble if we even thought about touching a child. Teaching 6 year olds over here I hug them, pet them, they kiss me all the time… being very British sometimes I feel like its a bit too much. But I think its nice, especially when they are that young.

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