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A Voice for American Middle School Students

Look, but Don’t Touch! by Lisa Stidd Silver
Please review this article as I am looking for support and ideas on how to protect the rights of our children in the exchange of human touch. It is a growing trend and my belief that the educational system needs to get hip with the times...change their policies so that no school will have the right to enforce such a fear based ruling upon our children.

Lisa Stidd SilverThere 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.

Comments

everlyrose's picture

i like this post

i have a long story to tell regarding losing my job as a middle school teacher...but there is truly a disparaging truth on all these hugging and touching issue
within the catholic school system, it has not yet been applied but i think it is slowly getting there
one day, it will just happen and our children will be more remote, less expressive and less compassionate
self control is the key, and inner assessment of ones feeling,
if one is not feeling right, then malice is present
but if it is an expression free of any insult or malice then why cant they express a pat on the shoulder, a shaking of the their hands a hug
i am sad to hear about this
and then in fear of what will be next?
good writing

everly

Solvitur ambulando
(it is solved by walking)

Connecting Together's picture

in reply

Hi Everly,

I think the key is to not buy into the fear which exists...and instead send the polarity of acceptance and unconditional love. This, in my opinion, can not be the future outcome. I am not sure what the exact process will be to create this change within the school system, but I am going to find out the most impactful way to begin. For now I am asking for support, creative ideas and to hear all views regarding human touch as it relates to our children in giving and receiving, especially at these ages of 11-13 years.

Much love,

Lisa

Lisa Stidd Silver

kgeorges's picture

I am from Massachusetts and

I am from Massachusetts and am now living in Portland and I am afraid to say that this phenomenon is taking place there(MA) as well. I don't understand how children are supposed to have appropriate boundaries with each other if they aren't, as you say, allowed to practice. The first time I heard about this was a couple of years ago when some schools near me being banning tag as a game during recess because the children were required to have contact with each other to play it. Touch is healing. It is absolutely necessary for our development into healthy adults and I would love to help you in this quest. Feel free to email me if you are still looking for support. Thank you for writing about this,
Katy

Connecting Together's picture

Coming together

Hi Katy,

Thank you for your reply. I am certainly looking for support and ideas in making change in our public schools. I should be receiving some feedback from a lawyer about the rights of the children, legally, etc... I wrote a letter to President Obama last spring and just got the form letter back saying that we must start at the state level first...there is nothing they can do. I would like to get a local group together to start brainstorming and coming together on this issue. I will keep you posted and in the meantime please share any of your ideas, concerns and advice!!

All the best,

Lisa

Lisa Stidd Silver

jaimekathleen's picture

hard call

Hi, I find this to be an incredibly interesting post! I live in Portland too, and I agree that touch is very important to have in the lives of children and adults. I think in positive scenarios like dance or holding hands, it's wonderful and nourishing, but in inappropriate ways it can be devastating. I feel compelled to share my story; I began being touched inappropriately in high school by boys who were fascinated with my developing body, and I'm sure I'm not the only girl that was treated this way. The halls were often crowded and the boys were sneaky, so it was sometimes hard to see who it was. I remember crying in the principal's office and being asked to name names because I felt so troubled I didn't want to go to school anymore. I remember the boys denying it and then later making my life hell, harassing me on the school bus or in my neighborhood -off school property- angrier because I had told on them. Things got so out of hand I one day was sexually assaulted a few blocks from my house. I know this was a nightmare for my mother, who then had to bring me back to life through much counseling and a change of schools. I've been grappling with the affects of this experience for 15 years and I still feel very afraid to be touched by people and even avoid hugging friends. So, I ask, what more could the school have done, what more could I have done? I know touch is important, but it's also important that students that do not want to be touched feel safe too.

Connecting Together's picture

In healing

Hi Jamie,

I thank you so much for sharing your most intimate and painful story. This is indeed part of the healing process! And I hope that you can experience some healing within yourself. I can feel the pain which my article has evoked. My oldest daughter had an experience with sexual harassment with one particular boy and I thought the school handeled it very well and that the situation was healed and they are friends. This was as we were still in Telluride, Colorado. The principle spoke to both children separtely, then together, then had the boy write a letter to Santana regarding his actions, which both sets of parents were included in and Santana was then to respond. It was also clear that any other phsycal contact from him towards her would not be tolerated. It worked in this situation. I don't know how your situations were handeled but am so sorry that it continued! I do hope that yours is an extreme case...and one that should have had great attention and taken very seriously by all involved. I also share with my all of my children, almost daily as I hear the stories of how cruelly the kids speak can speak to one another...from my parental experience being very sensitive and also having extremely senstive children...is to KNOW who YOU are. You are the only one that can no if you are treated poorly, spoken of poorly, not respected, etc... Do not take on other's ideas or beliefs about who they think you are...because that is just a reflection of who they think they are!! Don't fall for it. Know Yourself. And tell your friend who you know you are...so they can know. Be strong.
Also a big part of my thoughts about the right to touch is that this generation is so 'techie' and they don't hang out all that much...so school is about the only venue to practice and learn these most important social graces...and with proper guidance they will learn. Even with improper guidance...they will learn. We can not live in a bubble protected from all...but we can do our best to protect, love, honor. It sounds as if your mother did this with you...guided, loved and did what she could to give you a different experience...and hopefully a more positive one. I hope that my sharing here in return has been compassionate, because I reach out to you from my heart. And I cry tears with you and send any and all healing that I can through my energy to you.

Lisa

Lisa Stidd Silver

jaimekathleen's picture

thank you

I appreciate your response! I've become a much stronger person as a result of my hardships and I believe I gained wisdom in perspective through it all. I feel lucky, becasue I know many women experience much worse in the world every day.

I think that when touch is encouraged through dance or classroom activities where students might hold hands in a circle for example the benefits are great; I love Tango dancing of all things because of the safe wonderful feeling of physical closeness.

I just think that sometimes without enough adult supervision and guidance things can get out of hand very quickly, so when too many incidents occur year after year, the faculty my feel like they need desperate measures to keep everybody safe. Not every child has good parenting at home and violence comes into the schools. I think victims of physical abuse from bullies would be pro-no-touching as well. I can't decide how I feel about this issue, but I certainly find it sad that it has come to this, and I can see both sides of the argument very clearly. I think the problems are deeper rooted in our society; issues of respect, dehumanization and violence and they manifest in the children. I'm sure there are answers and I hope you find them!

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