Bears, like many mammals, often lick their baby cubs when they’re born. It cleans up the amniotic fluid, opens respiratory passages, stimulates nerve endings and furthers bonding between mother and cub. And so mammals begin their life in loving touch.
When a child is consistently ill-behaved, the French have an expression for it that translates to “a badly-licked bear.” Meaning the child missed this crucial bonding moment of loving touch and is taking revenge on the world for not getting what he or she needed.
These days, with lawyers reaching—or rather, over-reaching—into educational policy, young teachers are cautioned not to touch children. Because of the misuse of touch, the (non) solution is punish all children by withholding affectionate touch from adult caregivers. The irony is that many sexual offenders—just a guess here, I haven’t thoroughly researched this—may be badly-licked bears who suffered from no touch or inappropriate touch as children. And thus we may actually be contributing to future such offenders by institutionally making touch dangerous and suspect and risky and encouraging teachers to withdraw all physical contact.
But the fact is that children of all ages need touch. They need to be hugged and stroked and tickled and if they’re in any Spanish or Latin American country, kissed daily to re-affirm their bonding and connection with people and with themselves. Not only from adult to child, but from child to child and you only have to watch them hanging on to each other and wrestling and playfully fighting and braiding each other’s hair and walking hand-in-hand in all combinations of gender pairing to see that this is necessary and natural and none of it is cause for shaming or teasing or concern. Until it is and then we trust that children will know when lines have been crossed and yes, we train them to recognize it and speak up in the moment it happens and speak out, God forbid, after it happens and hold people accountable. That’s clear. But we don’t “solve” abuse by creating a different kind of touch-negligent abuse.
I begin every Orff workshop with a roomful of strangers holding hands and often doing some non-verbal arms-linked holding of each other’s weight and short back massages and sometimes at the end of a workshop, singing in a circle with heads down on the neighbor’s back feeling the vibrations of singing through the bones. When the song ends and the heads come up and the hands are released, the tears are evidence that they have been touched emotionally partly because they have been touched physically. Why would anyone try to make that wrong, ugly and legally risky?
This is on my mind because I had the great pleasure of accompanying Austrian Orff teacher Christine Schonherr to a Senior Center where she works with the elders. When she visited recently in San Francisco, I invited her to the Jewish Home to see what I was doing with folks there and she was returning the favor here in Salzburg. Where I mostly play piano and sing with the folks in San Francisco, she does some more active physical work, having them move different body parts to music, play simple clapping patterns and conduct, explore simple instruments or objects like scarves. It was a lovely lesson, but the highlight was a moment when the elders sat with their hands out and eyes closed and I, along with some other guest students, stroked their hands with peacock feathers. That simple act of sensual touch put them in a state of bliss that was remarkable to behold. And interestingly enough, some five of them were nuns!
People of all ages need touch and they need it often—babies, children, teenagers, young adults, working parents. But particularly elders. They are suffering in failing bodies and isolated in these important health-preserving but often lonely institutions and to have a moment of loving touch—and hopefully many—during the day is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. I never visited my mother without constantly holding her hand, hugging her, kissing her— a small payback for all the affection she gave to me as a child.
So just a word of remembrance. Touch often and lovingly and of course, appropriately and when the lawyers come to shake their finger at you, tell them to open their hands and tickle them with a peacock feather.