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Kids need hugs, not paranoia and fear

SOMETIMES I'm glad I'm not a man.

Now and again, when I've comforted a weeping child who is not my own, kissed a cheek or ruffled some hair, a fleeting thought has passed through my mind that, if I were a man, this might be considered inappropriate. This thing that is most natural and right - to hug a crying infant, or offer a cuddle as warmth and affection - would somehow be tinged with badness.

Of course, you don't have to be a man for that to be so. Our culture is suspicious of any adult-child physical contact. And that attitude appears to be snowballing. In recent years we have heard of nurseries that ban hugging and kissing; of a teacher in England being sacked for hugging his pupils; of another teacher, in Scotland, not putting sun lotion on a child for fear of accusations.

That this train needs to be halted was brought to the attention of MSPs by Sir Harry Burns last week. At a meeting of the Scottish Parliament's health committee, Sir Harry - now professor of public health at Strathclyde University - called for the retraction of bans on "physically comforting children". The current rules and regulations, he said, are getting in the way of us acting like human beings.

I hugged my own son this ­morning (I have hugged him many times, of course, but this one was ­memorable). Immediately beforehand, the air had been thick with irritation, wails, anger, hate - he didn't want me to be his mum any more. Afterwards, there was calm and peace. Scientists now know the biology of this - the oxytocin that is released and the role it has in regulating stress. They also know it is an important element in how we learn physiologically to self-regulate and deal with stress - an element of development. Yet we have become a culture that would deprive children of this magic, in the name of shielding them from some other ugly abuse.

Of course, we are doing this for the sake of the kids. Of course, we all want the utmost to be done to protect children and in this era of Operation Yewtree, Jimmy Savile, Rochdale and countless tales of institutional abuse, it's no surprise that we are anxious. But in our attempt to shield, we may in fact be neglecting. It may be that there are children growing up today who will have cause to complain in future years that their abuse was lack of hugs. One wonders particularly about those looked-after children in homes, described by Burns, where, if someone "walked past a child's room one night and heard the child sobbing, they would not be allowed to do anything about it".

Burns sees the current climate as dehumanising - and it is, indeed, a contrast to one school he describes in Spain where pupils line up and give teachers a kiss in the morning. Scotland's Children's Commissioner Tam Baillie last year raised a ­similar concern when he declared that "touching children shouldn't be taboo, it should be an expectation".

Burns is flagging up the fact that we may have gone too far in our desire to protect. "Damaging a child in any way is a really, really serious crime against humanity," he says, "but we're damaging children by not showing them that key empathy as well." We need to cultivate more empathy, and, as he notes, this is "not something that's exclusively the province of the parents - it's the province of other people who show affection for the child".

Some within the child ­protection field agree. At the same health committee meeting, leading child protection expert Alyson Leslie of Dundee University said that she felt society had gone "completely ­bonkers in the culture and ethos that have grown up around child protection". It seems to Leslie ridiculous that people could not "hug or reach out to a child, particularly when the child is in distress". For her it is imperative that we change the message.

Yet it's hard to see how to shift the culture. After all, for the most part it's not necessarily about legislation or actual bans but about countering a general pervading fear, a paranoia that reigns everywhere from the play park to the nursery, which makes men, in particular, police their language when talking about children and the warmth, affection and responsibility they feel towards them. One man I talked to on this subject (who isn't a father) uttered the words "show kids love", then retracted them as if they were somehow inappropriate.

One thing we can do, says Leslie, is change our language, stop talking about child protection and instead talk about child nurturing. "The more we talk about child protection," she adds, "the more we create the sense that we have to take children and put them some place safe, away from everyone." As she notes: "Child protection is not about restricting nurturing affectionate contact but encouraging it - with safeguards."

Though she is "hawkish" in her approach to assessing risk to children, she believes that where risk is minimal, common sense should prevail.

"As a species," she says, "we are programmed for affectionate contact: that should be the norm."

A few years ago, Burns says, he made comments such as this to the Association of Directors of Social Work and "there were gasps of horror in the room - there was a view that this man was a raving lunatic who wanted to hug children". Little has really changed since then. We are a long way away from creating a culture that delivers the "affectionate contact" that should be every child's right. Arguably the fear of contact has heightened.

And it is the children who do not get it from their parents, who are in care homes, or who are taught in schools where teachers don't dare touch them, who are being failed. They are the biggest victims of the paranoia and regulations.

What of those children who never get a hug?

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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