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Look, but Don’t Touch! by Lisa Stidd Silver

There is a common phrase that comes to mind when you’re in a place that contains fragile merchandise or rare documents: “LOOK, but DON’T TOUCH”. I remember being told this as a youngster, and it never resonated with me, though I learned (as we all must learn) the essential lesson: touch is a careful act. As an adult and mother, the approach I have used with my own children is for them to learn to touch with respect and reverence regarding the object of admiration.

The issue of touch-appropriate behavior is a big one in any society, most especially when it comes to touch between people. For young people to learn it, they have to observe it, practice it, make mistakes and eventually get it right. Young people are not like ill patients needing to be quarantined from touch, they are dynamic multi-dimensional creatures who learn through an engaged socialization process the appropriate expressions and boundaries for touch.

Given my beliefs, I would never, in my wildest dreams, have thought the “LOOK, but DON’T TOUCH” rule would be applied to my own daughter at school—but that is exactly what has happened at West Sylvan public middle school in Portland. That undreamed of possibility became rude reality when the school principle enforced a ‘No Physical Contact’ policy in March of this past school year.

I moved to Portland from Colorado recently because I wanted to experience living in a city known for its progressive attitude and committed to the environment; a city building a sustainable future. ‘Keep Portland Weird’, I see approvingly on bumper stickers... but this no touch thing is too weird!

What I first felt as my daughter came home explaining the new policy—quite confused herself as to what it truly meant—was a deep sadness about how fear can lead individuals and institutions to such an outcome. The idea of this policy feels so foreign and absurd to me that I couldn’t imaging it persisting. But the days have passed into months now, and as I engage with other parents, the principle, local news and reporters, I have come to understand that this policy is here to stay.

In those first few days after “getting” this new reality, I was quite emotional and cried a lot. It was like a death. I had been hoping to work with the administration in creating a policy that empowers everyone. But to my shock, after reaching out to other parents at West Sylvan to find support on this issue, I have found myself quite alone in my thoughts, feelings and ideas.

I researched deeper and found that West Sylvan is not the first to institute such a policy. In fact, ‘no touch’ is becoming a trend around the country. In my conversation with the principle, she stated that originally the idea of enforcing this policy came from a few instances of boy/girl unwanted touch; that the school felt vulnerable should a family choose to prosecute if something of this nature occurred on school grounds; that her license as a principle might be in jeopardy. She also stated that girls, especially, were being late to class because they were busy hugging one another in the halls. Describing this as a “hugging culture”, she compared it to a virus that needed to be stopped from spreading. In short, implementing the “No Physical Contact” policy was the only way she could see to contain the liabilities of touch. Wow!! No room at all for discussion of the positives of touch.

I think of my own experiences at this tender age, and how sweet, innocent and also devastating young love can be...friendship too, for that matter. How fragile these pre-teens and young teens are in exploring the boundaries of touch. How it makes them feel. How another is affected by one’s own touch. It is like learning a new language. An important language, as it is some of the most powerful stuff we learn and engage in ... the language of affection, comradery and love.

How will this affect our middle school children, this being watched, warned and sanctioned to make sure they do not hug, or put their arm around a best friend, luxuriating in the pure fun of being young, whether it be boy/boy, girl/girl or boy/girl? What are we really teaching here as we guide young people to not comfort their friend with touch, instead enforcing the artificial substitution of “professional” help at the counselor’s office?

What I intuitively know is that the strong-willed young people understand that this is nonsense, and will find their way around it, or rebel their way through it. However, I do feel there will be many affected negatively by this experience. The message I see being forced upon them is that the body, with all its natural functions and feelings, is not to be trusted, accepted, or explored. At its core, this comes down to core issues. Sex. Repression. Fear and control. No matter what the institutions of society try to impose on young people, something far more powerful begins at this age, and hopefully, given the correct guidance, young people will move through puberty respecting their own body and the body of another. To take away the right of touch, I believe, is misguided. These children/students should not be punished for their acts in loving one another, goofing around or playing with one another. We should be engaging such issues and behaviors with truth and respect.

I watch my teenage girls text off and on for hours. It is just part of the flow of how they maneuver and manage their social lives. We have simple rules in our home—no phones allowed at the dining table—to set boundaries and savor some sacred time for conversation and physical connection. What I witness with my kids and their peers is that they prefer to experience their friendships even while doing their homework or hanging out with each other or their siblings. The fabric is all intertwined in who is texting whom, and they mix & match texting between siblings, swapping friends with each other, as if they were at a virtual party mingling about. So why is it surprising that, when they actually are physically present and within arm’s reach of one another, they want to hug ... even cling, for goodness sake!

Physical touch is becoming so limited due to our techno-age, and now our schools are pushing youth even further into this dimension devoid of human contact. In my daughter’s school, a touch-offender is written up for a PDA (Public Display of Affection). Detention may be one of the disciplinary measures. What to do? As I cried my heart out and revealed my own emotional pain to my daughter, I told her, “I hope the whole detention room is full of hugging offenders”.

I support my daughter each and every day to be herself and to show her affection with respect, honoring herself and others. It is time to get hip and really address the issues at our schools—to provide an avenue for all to experience and learn the gift and honoring involved in responsible touch, and to call out inappropriate touch when it happens. Application of the “LOOK, but DON’T TOUCH” rule is a one-size-fits-all solution that relieves nothing except perhaps the apparent headache school administrators and teachers face when it comes to monitoring young peoples’ behavior in school hallways to make them get to class on time.

I encourage any reader to contact me about this. Let’s begin to make a change, starting locally and grow from there.

Although Lisa Stidd Silver’s professional background is architecture, she enjoys expressing creatively through writing about matters that touch her heart and issues that she feels need a voice. Lisa resides in Portland, Oregon with her two daughters and son. Connecting and sharing with people in her new community in meaningful ways brings great joy and inspiration. She may also be seen climbing in the Northwest hills on her road bike, a life passion. You may contact the author at: [email protected].

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