Friday, 15 June 2012

Can't Touch This

This week it came to light that the principal of Mount Martha Primary School had banned children from touching one another. This included hugs, handshakes (though, really, when have you ever seen two 9 year olds willingly shaking hands?), high-fives, and helping each other up after a fall. There’s been something of an uproar over this and, to be quite honest, I don’t really understand why.

I can only suppose that when people hear of such rules being put in place, they think only of what the children might ‘miss out on’ due to the new rule. As though that idea that settles in one’s head at around the age of eight (i.e., that the principal is an all-powerful tyrant put on earth solely to destroy all you fun by stopping you jumping off that thing you always liked jumping off just because some other, less coordinated kid broke both their arms doing it that one time) never really leaves once one reaches adulthood. The automatic assumption of is that the principal is making up new rules just to curtail the rights of the students.

Being the daughter of two primary school principals, I grew up largely immune to the idea of the tyrant principal. I also came to understand that the rules they placed on me, and those they placed on their students, from a mature, less reactive point of view. Because of that I can see a number of very good reasons for the ‘no contact’ rule.

One – Personal space and ownership of one’s body
Primary school-aged children often lack the language to talk about ownership of their body. Often the issue of ownership is only brought up if there is a major breach of a child’s ability to reject the touch of another person (e.g., molestation, assault). Even if the issue is addressed when there has been no such incident, it can still be difficult for children to grasp exactly what it is they ‘own’ and what their rights are.

This can become even more difficult when they are taught that they can repel or report breaches of their rights by an adult, but are taught (or they come to understand, due to lack of discussion on the issue) that they should simply accept such things if they come in the form of a hug from a friend. The confusion can become especially dangerous when you consider the percentage of assaults and molestations which are committed by people the child might consider ‘trusted’ or ‘a friend’.

Even when the situation is not as serious as criminal assault on a child, there is still the issue of permission to consider. If your child is uncomfortable with being touched, but is lead to understand that it is socially unacceptable to reject being touched by friends and is never informed of how or when they are allowed to tell someone to stop touching them, this can lead to the child feeling vulnerable and anxious in the schoolyard.

In light of these factors, perhaps banning children from touching one another until they are old enough and informed enough to understand exactly what appropriate touching is and exactly how to revoke permission to touch is a pretty solid idea.

Two – Inclusive and exclusive behaviour
A concerned parent calling in to a radio show this morning was worried that even high-fives and handshakes were to be banned. At first, this seemed a step to far to me, even though I largely agreed with the ban. Then I remembered back to the time when I was being severely bullied by my year three classmates.

I was an active member of the netball team. Despite the fact many of the other girls refused to throw the ball to me, I was a good defender and managed to acquit myself well on the court and assist in the process of getting a number of goals. When each goal was scored, or game won, there was a round of hugging, high-fiving, and back-patting between teammates. But not for me. No matter how well I played, no matter how hard I tried, I was never congratulated by my teammates. Their congratulatory rounds were withheld as a further form of out-of-school-hours bullying.

Touching is so often seen as inclusive behaviour, but from the perspective of a child who was socially blocked from participating, it is just another form of ostracising a person – one that is extremely visible and so all the more humiliating.

Three – First aid protocols
The same concerned parent mentioned that, according to his children, the school had banned the simple act of helping a friend up if they fell. He was outraged, of course, thinking that his children were being prevented from performing a simple act of charity. I nearly cheered. Having been exposed to the day-to-day working of many primary schools, I have heard some pretty horrific stories about what happens when a child attempts to help an injured child in the playground.

Children with broken or fractured limbs have been helpfully walked to the office by their peers without notifying the teachers on yard duty. Children have been helpfully picked up and dusted off by their friends after major falls which could have done damage to their spine. In the worst cases damage was done, and the helpful friends unwittingly caused further damage. Children have done themselves injuries while trying to help their injured friend. There have been cases where ambulances had to be called first for the child who was injured in a fall, then for their friend who was injured in an attempted rescue. Most schools don’t have a ‘no contact’ policy in place for this sort of situation, but they do have a very similar rule; go and get a teacher before you touch or move your friend.

Lately, there’s been heavy scrutiny of principals’ behaviour and the rules enforced in different schools. Often this scrutiny if largely comprised of the knee-jerk, ‘it wasn’t like that in my day’ kind of reaction. We need to resist that reaction and consider the eventualities the rules were designed to prevent. Yes, the wording of this particular rule is simplistic, but then it was designed to be understood by children. The ‘no touching’ rule may seem strict at first glance, but it is clearly the best way to deal with a complex issue. When the grey area is this complicated, children need black and white rules to protect them.

Even if you don’t buy into that argument, try this one: if you think about it, you probably function under a similar rule every day when you’re at work; touching without permission can be considered bullying or harassment; respect the fact that shaking hands is taboo in some cultures; if an accident occurs, contact your first aid officer or an ambulance and don’t try to help unless you have had the proper training.

Schools are preparing your children for the real world in many more ways than just providing them with thinking and learning skills. 

Welcome to the real world, Mount Martha Primary School.


  1. Thank you for being the voice of reason on this. I've seen so many of these reports about 'unreasonable' rules, and most of the time it's the media exaggerating them (or making them up entirely). Even when the stories are reported accurately, the media still tries desperately to create a sense of outrage about them which people usually oblige because they don't stop and think about it for five minutes. For example, there was recently a story here in the UK about a couple of schools 'banning' children from having best friends. The children had actually been told that they should try to make lots of friends, that way when they fall out with one they still have friends to play with. Obviously though the media went crazy over it and published lots of quotes from outraged parents who were furious that their children couldn't have a best friend any more.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Schools are such a vulnerable target for the media. Everyone has an emotional connection (whether through memory or through their children) to schools, so it is easy to create a storm of outrage that can feed the news cycle for days, if not weeks. I guess that makes stories about school rules a goldmine for the media. In such cases it's important to search for the explanation, not just the reaction.