elevating child care

Please Don’t Handle The Children

“My husband’s only brother got married, and we were all invited to be in the wedding, even Nicky.  I’m so proud to say that Nicky walked down the aisle successfully, even when nobody (not even his own grandparents) thought that he would understand what was asked of him. 
Then, when it was time to exit down the aisle, a stranger from the bride’s side reached out and touched Nicky’s head as he went.  It broke his concentration on the task at hand, and when he realized he was surrounded by strangers and one had just touched him, he burst into tears.  It was a huge lesson (for quite a few of us) in respecting the personal space of even the smallest of people.  When my husband and I discussed it afterward, it made me think of you.” –Caroline (the mom who shared her story in 7 Parenting Secrets That Change Lives)

Perhaps children should wear warning labels: “I might look cute and what I’m doing might look easy, but chances are, I’m putting 100% of my most serious effort into whatever it is. For this and a load of other reasons, please don’t touch me.”

Why do we think we have the right to touch children? The younger the child, the more welcome we feel to touch and hold him or her without permission. It seems to me that we get this totally backward…shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I’m a touchy, feely, demonstrative person. Perhaps overly so. As I mentioned in Can Babies Love Too Much? – Teaching Children To Give Affection With RespectI impulsively hug adults I’ve just met. I touch people on the shoulder to emphasize “I like you”, “I care” or “I’m sorry”.

But the younger the person, the less able they are to say “no”, glare at us disapprovingly, or push us away. Young children are especially incapable of indicating more subtle discomfort. “That doesn’t feel good. That tickles. Please don’t, I don’t know you yet. You interrupted me.”

Some believe it’s okay for babies and toddlers to be swooped up, “loved up” (as one parent put it), thrown up in the air, tickled, rough-housed, pushed down slides, etc. Yes, they might seem to enjoy those things. When we’re smiling and laughing, our babies want to mirror this, and they are the very best sports we’ll ever find. They’re all about trust.

But don’t we want to ensure their security, self-confidence, respect for their boundaries and those of others? Every interaction children have teaches them their place in the world, how they should be treated and how they should relate to others. Children wholeheartedly accept the level of respect they are given.

Touch is a fundamental need for babies, but the way we touch matters. Infant expert Magda Gerber has been criticized because of her recommendation to ask babies, or at least warn them, before picking them up, even when they’re crying. She believed infants could and should be given choices and the little bit of time they need to make them. “With infants we have to be even more careful, because they cannot tell us…”  For advising this ultra-sensitivity and respect, Gerber is sometimes misunderstood as being against picking up babies.

It’s vital that we teach our children that they belong to themselves. They must know they have a right to their personal space and boundaries.  This is not a lesson that can wait until age 3 or 4, and it’s a lesson only we can provide, because society is way behind on this one. We may have to resort to the warning labels.

I  share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 

(Photo by Details of the Day on Flickr)

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88 Responses to “Please Don’t Handle The Children”

  1. avatar Lindsay says:

    I’m sorry, but I think this is ridiculous. I understand if a child says no or indicates with his body that he/she is uncomfortable that we respect them and not touch them, but I do not think that I should have to get permission to touch a child on the head or hold their hand; especially if they approach me and are curious. I think it is so much more dangerous to be overly sensitive with our children and with others toward our children. I think as long as the child is comfortable and ok, then allow people to be people and love on kids.

    • avatar Angharad says:

      I think the point is that they can’t tell you if its okay. So its about respecting that and them as a human. If someone just came up to you and put their hand on your head how would you feel? I agree we don’t want to go too far down the road of over sensitivity, but I have sat watching my 4 month old be stroked and patted by relatives who seemed completely unaware of how uncomfortable she was, how over tired and in the end I rescued her and we went and sat in a quiet room where she could just be. What is people’s obsession with touching other people’s babies and why is it okay, when you would never do it to an adult. I always ask my now 10 month old daughter if I can pick her up, mostly she raises her arms but every now and then she looks up but carries on playing, clearly she doesn’t always want to be touched and I’m glad I give her the opportunity to express that.

    • avatar Stina says:

      For the sake of this particular story, the child wasn’t even paying attention to the person who suddenly touched him. He didn’t approach the person and wasn’t curious about them. This whole article is talking about adults taking the liberty to decide how and when to engage physically with a child even in small ways. Before even hearing of RIE or Magda or Janet, I decided to observe children when I interacted with them, and came to the realisation and conclusion on my own the very things this article is discussing.

  2. avatar Deena says:

    I agree with protecting children from unsolicited touching/getting in their space. I had a no-touch rule other than immediate family before he was 6 months old because of the H1N1 flu that he could not yet be immunized against – and was surprised that some would not take no for an answer. Sometimes I physically had to get between him and the person who just “had to” tickle his foot. On a related note I was proud of him the other day (he is 6) when a stranger who worked at a booth helping children plant seeds told him to come with her (a few feet away) to plant seeds with her. She didn’t see me watching, nor did she ask him if his grownup would allow it – he told her “I have to ask my mom first”, found me, and I gave permission. I e-mailed the owner later to explain that it wasn’t appropriate for her to try to take my child with her nor was it wise to have a child handle seeds who might be allergic. They agreed.

  3. avatar Katie says:

    I get this. As a body worker, I’m trained to treat my clients like this, ask permission, be sensitive to how my touch could startle, or surprise or cross a boundary. I think about when I go get my 6 month old up from his crib in the night when the lights are out. I make a sound and gently make contact, even if he’s already worked up. Then I pick him up, and often by rolling him gently to his side. I think babies totally deserve that sensitivity.
    I think we all do.

  4. avatar Kris Hughes says:

    Hmmm – lacking in nuance. First: How well do you know the child? How well can you read the child? etc. etc. Second: There is also a lot of evidence that we all benefit from being touched. Personal space should be respected, but the current thinking on personal space may make people draw back from healthy touching. Third: I’m not always thrilled when kids come up and shove their half-eaten cookie in my face, grab me by the legs, or whack me with their toys. Works both ways!

    • avatar janet says:

      So, this parent’s (and child’s) experience was invalid in your view? Regarding “works both ways”, you aren’t really comparing your own self control to that of a toddler, are you?

    • avatar Stina says:

      I’m not saying this with a rude tone, but truly…be realistic…most people don’t think for one second about reading a child before swooping them up into a game or trying to force hugs and kisses on them, let alone even seemingly lesser touches like a pat on the head etc. They just do it with no regard to the child.

      I don’t think toddlers even know what a sticky or half eaten cookie “is,” and when they’re shoving it in your face they’re probably trying to offer or share a bite, merely modelling feeding someone the way someone has probably fed them. Just one example from the examples you mentioned. Even being whacked with toys by a child…they often don’t even know they are whacking you! I’ve had toy trucks and cars driven over my legs and it hurts! But they don’t know they aren’t doing it as gently as I may do if driving a toy car along their leg…

  5. avatar linda says:

    When my oldest was somewhere around a year old I took her to meet my out of town relatives.
    As a young inexperienced mom. When we would say hello or goodbye I’d tell her give aunt or uncle so and so a kiss. My aunt stopped me in my tracks and said dont “make” or “tell” her to do that.. .I was caught off guard but listened to her and I’m glad I did.
    Just for that very reason…maybe she didn’t want to give so and so a kiss. And from then on we just waved and blew kisses from afar. In this weird day and age I tell that story to all young moms and dads whether you have a boy or a girl.

  6. avatar C says:

    Well now I feel awful. My kids are 4 and 2 1/2 and I never thought of this.

  7. avatar Kim says:

    I have a child who does not like people period. We aren’t sure how it happened, perhaps it has something to do with his vision ( he is under treatment for crossed eyes). maybe not seeing people clearly has made him unsure and afraid. He’s a cutie and people are drawn to him with his glasses and mop full of curls, so we’ve had to learn to be his shield and his voice because even him moving away doesn’t stop some people. My oldest is Mr. America loves everyone never met a stranger blows kisses hugs people has a mean hand shake and a million dollar smile for everyone. The little one has learned to blow kiss and give a high five …if he wants too.
    It has made me aware that children have feelings too and just how different they are.

  8. avatar Paulene says:

    I guess this is why kids have always liked me. I never touched one without permission and I treat them like ‘little people’. If they want to talk to me even if I don’t quite understand everything they have to say I listen and nod and smile. It doesn’t take long of treating them with respect before I find my lap and heart full.

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