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1 September 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Hands-off care for kids
New research reveals the 'ludicrous ways' in which childcare professionals now avoid touching the young children they look after.

by Josie Appleton

Research by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) confirms a growing 'panic' about childcare professionals touching the young children in their care. Heather Piper, John Powell and Hannah Smith argue that fears of child abuse have caused 'considerable concern and uncertainty' about the most innocent of interactions.

In a forthcoming journal article, which draws on MMU research projects and other studies, they describe how some child carers are even reluctant to put a plaster on a child's scraped knee. Very young children have been asked to treat their injuries themselves - with the nursery worker or teacher instructing them how to open the medical box, take out a plaster, and stick it on. In cases where the child's parent was nearby, they have been summoned to deal with the injury. There are reports from New Zealand of girls being left injured on the sports field or in the gymnastics hall, while a male teacher sent other children to find a female teacher to treat them.

Back in the UK, a mini-crisis erupted over a playgroup staff member wiping the bottom of one three-year-old boy. When the mother objected, the nursery said that they only did so if the boy requested it. The mother demanded that the playgroup ring her if he needed his bottom wiping in future. After a lengthy exchange, in which staff said that it was impractical to phone every time he needed the toilet, they agreed to inform her if he had used the toilet when she came to pick him up in the evening.

Back in 1998, it hit the headlines that some schools were advising teachers to avoid rubbing sun cream into children's skin, and to use spray instead. Piper and her colleagues report that other schools are taking a different approach: 'in at least one school, letters have been sent to parents to ask for their consent for teachers to put sun cream on three- to five-year old children.'

Meanwhile, the annual visit to Santa has become fraught with anxiety. One Santa wasn't allowed to have children on his knee; when a mother asked for a photograph with him, this was refused. Piper and her colleagues draw out the assumptions behind this: 'Are we to assume that Father Christmas will be unable to resist touching-up a small child even when the child's mother is watching? Or should we assume that mothers taking their children to see Father Christmas have a primary aim which involves setting him up for allegations of abuse?' In 2002, Rotary International issued guidelines that Santas should 'be accompanied by at least one other person at all times', failing which they should 'go off duty'; in other cases, Santas were advised to always be accompanied by a team of elves.

Childcare professionals are especially wary about how they relate to children in public. One junior school advised teachers: 'when taking children on an outing think how you appear to the public.' Another childminder started to reconsider how her interactions with children might look to others. 'I like to lie on the floor on my tummy if we're relaxing and watching television. Sometimes the children come and sit on my back. The parents have seen it and are okay with it, but it may be seen as unacceptable by some people.'

Piper tells me that we are in a 'crazy situation - many people are behaving in completely ludicrous ways'. What is now cast into doubt is the process of 'normal nurturing and caring; the way adults are with children'. Comforting a child when they're upset, putting a plaster on them, wiping their bottom - all these everyday ways in which adults care for young children are now seen as suspect. To be a responsible adult, it seems, is to see yourself as a potential abuser, and to avoid touches that might get out of hand or be taken the wrong way.

This isn't a rational strategy for combating child abuse. Instead, it reinforces a generalised sense of mistrust, with adults looking suspiciously at other adults' - and their own - interactions with children. Piper and her colleagues argue that 'fears around touch are totally confused': 'It would seem we are fearful but never quite sure what or who we are fearful of. Our fears are about ourselves just as much as they are about another and sometimes an unidentified other who might just be watching from some unidentified place.'

Touching is recast as an area of professional expertise
'No touch' codes only fuel suspicion. Once professionals start adopting codes, they are in effect admitting that their natural instincts and judgements cannot be trusted. The teacher who refuses to put a plaster on a child's leg is acknowledging that an apparently innocent touch might not be so innocent after all. The Santa who requires a team of elves to police him is raising the question of what he would do to the child on his knee were he alone.

Child carers are sacrificing their own judgement and common sense about how to relate to children. 'It would appear that professionals have allowed and colluded in their own disempowerment', Piper and her colleagues argue. 'In doing so we are failing many children (and others) by opting out of making hard but ethical choices and distinctions.' The new codes on touching are a sign of adult professionals' 'hands off' approach to children, an abdication of their responsibility as carers - to fix scraped knees, put on sun cream, or help them go to the toilet.

An apparent paradox is that this 'no touch' policy has gone along with an explosion in 'touch professionals'. The academics report an increase in massage in schools and nurseries - with some schools sending 'difficult' children for massage in an attempt to calm them down, and other schools bringing in massage for whole classes, dividing children into pairs and teaching them how to massage each other's backs. In Sweden - a country that has a 'no touch' policy on a par with Britain's - more than 70 per cent of daycare centres use infant massage.

So stroking a child's back to comfort her is dodgy; stroking her back as part of a trained massage routine is okay. What is happening here, argue Piper and co, is the 'professionalisation of touch', serving to 'remove it from the world of the "natural" and insert it into the world of the "technical"'. While everyday, informal touch between adults and children becomes suspicious, touching is recast as an area of professional expertise, and consigned to special massage sessions. Only when you have the necessary qualifications will you be trusted to touch.

Fear of touching is turning classrooms and nurseries into minefields. This means carers giving up on caring - to the detriment of children's development.

If you have any examples or would like to be interviewed as part of Manchester Metropolitan University's ongoing research, contact Heather Piper on +44 (0)161 2475127 or at h.j.piper@mmu.ac.uk

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