The Boundaries of Physical Touch

May 13, 2010
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Good Touch versus Bad Touch: we all must learn it sooner or later, whether it’s after “nudging” someone into the sandbox, or simply giving your new friend a hug. The supervisor will come over and tell you or I, a kindergartner, to ask before you ever touch someone. It’s almost…scarring. This, however, is the reality that applies to everyone: It has that catch in that everyone’s definitions of good touch and bad touch are different. A person raised in a hug-happy household is very different from the person raised in a strict “respect the space of others” household. And since everyone’s ideas of these terms are so different, many schools refuse to define them in their own right “in respect of all the parents and their child’s individual needs” and either ignore the problem or choose to resort to extreme measures. The question is, are these extreme measures helping or hurting teens? And why do schools have to resort to it? I will thoroughly answer these questions by going over what these key terms are, the history of this issue, the overkill response, and facts about our lawsuit-happy nation.

First of all, we have to define some nagging terms important to this piece. The topic of my introduction—good touch and bad touch—are defined as, obviously enough, a person’s general opinion of what’s okay for them in being physically touched. It is definitely not black and white: it’s very much a “gut” feeling any one person will feel differently from another. Then there is PDA: Public Displays of Affection; namely, hugging or kissing in public places (for example, a school hallway or lunchroom), or otherwise showing strong fondness for another. Many schools have already restricted this, but with variating strictness. Some ban PDA completely, some schools don’t, some don’t even bother to monitor it. A few even use the awesome power of God or other religious deities to strike fear into the hearts of students. Now, the students are trying to take control of their own lives and bodies, with unfortunate results.

Historically, teens—mostly in the sixteenth through nineteenth, even into the early twentieth centuries—were not the ones to decide on what were alright forms of public affection: their parents were. This was the social norm until only about sixty years ago, and then truly collapsed twenty years later, in the 1960s with the “flower power” movement. Today, the teens are the ones who decide their own limits…with their parent’s consult. This can be a problem; while all teens revel in this privilege, we don’t always share everything—sometimes anything—with our parents, and we’re not smart enough to figure it out ourselves. So we make stupid decisions, allowing our definitions of good touch to go way over the line into teenage sex, which brings pregnancy, STIs, and is generally just a bad emotional choice. Such awful consequences scare our parents and our teachers, so they then go overboard in trying to prevent it. The almost unanimous agreement to put sexual education into school curriculums is one of the most obvious gates of prevention. But parents want to do as much as possible to keep their children on the best path.

Parents have had what I dub “Overkill Syndrome” for centuries, attempting to protect their children and keep them safe—or, more important to society, proper and respectable. However, again in the past forty or so years, Overkill Syndrome (a condition in which a parent or guardian unnecessarily goes above and beyond what is a suitable response to a problem, as because of misjudgment of the extent of the problem) has spiked suddenly. The best theory behind this is that our parents are having fewer children than our grandparents and great-grandparents, thereby putting their eggs in fewer baskets, so to speak. It’s a subconscious fear: that they won’t succeed as parents, that their child will fail and it will be because the parent messed up. There is no “better luck next time” these days. And this overkill response—used in order to prevent the awful before it occurs—has manifested itself in the realm of physical touch by way of “protecting” their child or teen’s corporeal being. Their child was playing hockey during gym and had their nose broken by a badly aimed puck and a poor helmet; the overkill response would be to lobby to ban gym hockey. These cases, though problematic, have less of an impact, as opposed to the administration, which have reigning power for thirty-three percent of every day of every teen’s life.

The administration of the schools have become worse than the parents—mostly because they fear the parents. They don’t want to deal with any backlash from parents or Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) petitioning for any “physical touch” redress. In schools nationwide, all forms of physical touch have been flat-out banned. From the Motherlode blog at NY Times Online, Banning Hugs at School by Lisa Belkin, “Local news in the Milford, CT reported that parents at the East Shore Middle School received a letter from Principal Catherine Williams, which said that any touching at all on school grounds—including “hugging” and “horseplay”—could result in “parent conferences, detention, suspension and or a request for expulsion from school.” The article goes on to say that the school “insisted the rule had been on the books all along” but that the school was certainly using a stricter interpretation than had ever been seen before, according to parents and students. This is only one of many such blanket restrictions on seemingly harmless activities such as high-fives, pats on the back, or even a quick hug between a boyfriend and girlfriend that I doubt was really considered “extreme hugging,” as a few schools have watched for. This particular incident in Milford was jump-started from an episode earlier that month when a student had to go to the emergency room after a kick to the groin. But why did the school feel it right to destroy natural activities essential to being social (I cannot be the only one to ever lightly hit one of my friends because they said something stupid or irritating, can I?) instead of perhaps, banning kicks to the groin? It could possibly be to protect themselves in case of future incidents in a lawsuit-happy nation such as ours. It is a logical answer; just, perhaps, not a moral, ethical, or proper one.

In today’s society, people have sued over the strangest things-and won, or at least had a case. For example, the case Liebeck v. McDonald’s Corporation, the plaintiff sued McDonald’s for giving her too-hot coffee, which she spilled on herself, resulting in some third-degree burns. She was awarded $640, 000 by a trial judge; citation “Truth, Justice, and the Jury” by Shari Diamond in Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. The point of this is that schools—especially small public schools—rarely have the money to support constant lawsuits, nor for any out-of-court settlements that likely resulted from an overreactive parent suing without real cause. They are getting scared, and are protecting their wallets from anything that could ever possibly be an issue. Exhibit A: once again, physical touch. Anything and everything from high-fives to kicks in the groin and beyond are fair game for punishments. These produce horrible effects for the average student who maybe regularly hugs their boyfriend or girlfriend, high-fives their buddy, or even plays a contact sport. Such bans result in wasted time for administrators who have to have meetings with students, teachers, and parents about a likely no-problem student; marks on students’ records that may hurt their chances of college acceptance; and unnecessarily raising the stress levels of parents who may be near prime heart attack age. These are truly worrisome times if schools have to watch themselves—and students—so closely, because it means they no longer trust the public and the students to watch themselves.

Looking at everything I’ve brought up, what are we going to do about this trend? Obviously, we need to push these ridiculous rules into the realm of reality. That is the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, this is not likely to occur. School boards across the country need to have public forums, allowing the community to voice their opinions, and let administrators know that these are rules that we all do not need. In fact, the Today Show asked if schools were going too far in barring touch; of the 5,215 people that responded, 84 percent said banning hugs and hand-holding is “ridiculous and a waste of time.” The remaining respondents said no, that public displays of affection are “inappropriate at school.” That may be a valid point, but schools, again, need to hear what the public majority has to say. Yes, everyone may have different ideas of what good touch and bad touch and PDA are, but we can all agree: our nation’s educators are worrying too much about their own interests and not the interests of their students.

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Artgirl1999 said...
Mar. 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm
Very good! Excellent grammar, spelling, etc., clear, concise ideas, good evidence, sources cited....great job!
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