Monday, February 13, 2012

Skype Abuse


Today I had a Skype visit with my granddaughter Zadie. At 12-weeks old, she is markedly different from the precious 5-week old I got to hold and cuddle over Winter Break. More alert, smiling, babbling— though not much of it when I call. Camera shy? But still I’m so grateful to get to see her from 3,000 miles away. And for free! And legal! (We’ve come a long way from the fake credit card calls I made in Europe back in 1973!)

But as wonderful as it is to see her, I always hang up the call feeling depressed. How can you see a baby without holding her? Without lifting her in the air, bouncing her on your knee, tickling her, rubbing noses, giving raspberries on her belly, dancing with her, walking with her outside tucked in the front snuggly. It’s frustrating!! So close but so far. When it comes to grandchildren, there’s something cruel about the Skype call.

So instead of sitting and moping, I started thinking about that urge to hold and touch. Touch, along with movement and song, is one of the three languages we start speaking and responding to when we begin our time here on the planet. Up until recently (in human history), we intuitively knew all this, but things got weird when Descartes proclaimed the brain as separate from the body and the Puritans decided that the body was an evil trap for Spirit to be patiently endured until we were set free in heaven. A few centuries later, the necktie came in to cut off circulation to everything below the throat, talking heads appeared on the news programs and other bizarre aberrations of our capacity to think strangely—and wrongly—appeared. Especially when it came to child-raising and babies were left alone in cribs at night and other devices during the day away from the body of mother (or sibling, grandparent, neighbor, etc.). Then the experts came in to justify this practice.

Case in point. John B. Watson, one of the early behaviorist scientists, wrote a book in 1928 titled Psychological Care of Infant and Child in which he advised young mothers to be careful about giving their baby too much love and affection. “Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap, “ he cautioned and then in a moment of weakness added, “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.” Someone who steals a candy bar can get thrown in jail, but someone who, however innocently, helped rob a generation of children from the touch and love they needed and deserved gets off scot free. I’m not whining here, but let’s face it, there is no justice.

Another such “innocent” disaster took place in the 1940’s when the germ theory of human contact causing disease convinced workers at an orphanage to feed and clothe their babies, but not to touch, play with, hold or handle them. The result? The infants grew sickly and weak and many died of the same diseases the policy was trying to protect them from. A psychologist sent to investigate concluded that failing to hold, stroke, sing and coo to, touch and play with babies, is fatal to infants. The most ignorant villager in the most backward village could have told us that, but we civilized folks are so clever that we were sure that science would teach us the proper way to raise children.

And ironically, now it can help as neuroscientists are investigating the necessity of touch and speech and song and play. The above stories came from a sleeper of a book written by three doctors titled A General Theory of Love. I gave it to my daughter as a Christmas present and she didn’t seem thrilled, but if she ever has the leisure to read it, will find it not only beautifully written and rich with stories mixed with essential and understandable facts, but ultimately an affirmation of what I hope she knows from her own upbringing— that love is not the luxury of poets, but the necessity of us all to reach the full promise our enlarged brains hold. The punch line—we need a culture attuned to the ways of the heart— is certainly a subject that I hold dear to the heart and have struggled in my own modest way to contribute to in my school and workshops.

And speaking of school, you know I can’t resist a constructively critical whine here. My second daughter went through a relatively enlightened teacher credential program here in San Francisco, but while she had just one hour of music training in two years of classes, she was required to attend a three-hour session by a specialist who advised these young teachers against touching children to avoid legal action.

If you read the bent stick metaphor in my last posting, you can’t find a better example of two disastrously bent sticks than the story of touching children in school. First was corporal punishment (remember my blog a year ago? Caning banned in Korea—last year!) and stories of sexual abuse hidden in a cloak of secrecy. Not only in the school, but in the home and culture as well. Nothing could be more damaging than a child publicly shamed with physical punishment and privately shamed with sexual abuse in a wider culture that refused to talk about and acknowledge it. And so the law stepped in and created Child Protective Services with a worthy aim in mind— no more secrecy and those who are abusive must face consequences and treatment. All well and good.

But then the stick bent in the other direction to the point where young teachers are advised to never touch children of any age. So instead of isolated incidents of abuse perpetrated on the few, now there is an institutional abuse of all by depriving children of the need for touch. One might argue that they still can be lovingly touched at home and I hope that is true, but a climate of fear of touch permeates everywhere and an education without loving touch is barely an education at all. It’s fine for these young teachers to know the law and the wiggle-room it allows ( in reality, most teachers still do hug children and pat them on their back), but after the 10-minute legal talk, they should spend the next few hours in company with grandmothers and neuroscientists to study how vitally important touch is.

And if touch (and movement and song) is vital at the beginning of life, it becomes an urgent necessity again at the end of life. So many visits with my mother these days are just sitting in silence holding hands in the garden, interrupted by occasional outbursts of kisses. Along with some songs, this is just what the doctor ordered.

And by the way, it’s pretty important in the middle of life as well! So after reading this, go over to the nearest person and give them a hug. With their permission, of course.

PS A word about that grandmother/neuroscientist training class. It shouldn’t be on Skype.

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