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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