Laura Steckley

I’m sitting at my window watching the men in neon yellow jackets erect the town Christmas tree. It shifts me into the holiday spirit a bit, and I’m reminded of how magical the holidays were when I was little. I loved the whole carnival of Christmas and on Christmas Eve I’d get so excited, sleep was impossible. The only suspicions I had of Santa was whether he was real.

Things have changed since I was little, and Santa is no longer trusted. He must have his background checked, children must sit beside him rather than on his knee, and a handshake rather than a kiss is now the accepted form of greeting or farewell. These changes reflect increasing fears about, and prohibitions against, the touching of children by adults.

I said I would write about the no-touch moral panic this month, and it makes sense to start by looking at what a moral panic is. A moral panic can be characterised as an intense societal preoccupation with an event, phenomenon, person or group deemed to be a threat to social order or societal values (hence the moral part). The perception of the degree of threat tends to be exaggerated (hence the panic part) and the media plays a key part in fuelling this perception. The witch hunts of the late Middle Ages, McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and the anti-semitism that led to the Holocaust are all clear examples of moral panics.

Johnson identified current discourse and practices around (not) touching children as a moral panic in 2000, though for a good while before that people were writing about the damaging trends of no-touch policies. In the UK, as early as 1990, Ward wrote about the then recent concern about child sexual abuse inhibiting residential child care workers from engaging in appropriate physical contact with children. The subject of touch has been addressed in articles on this site and in the online discussions, and the residue of this moral panic can be seen in pronouncements of no touch policies and practitioners’ reticence to touch kids. The stronger voice, at least in these writings, however, challenges the trend to physically distance ourselves from kids. In other disciplines, professionals are making similar challenges.

Yet despite these challenges, there appears to be a prevailing discourse about the dangerous nature of touch, particularly between professionals and the children in their care. The title of this month’s column is taken from a book that came out last year. The book is based on a significant piece of research that explores the current moral panic about the touching of children. In their preface, Piper and Stronach offer the premise for their research, confirmed by a small-scale study, that the touching of children in professional settings had increasingly stopped being relaxed, or instinctive, or primarily concerned with responding to the needs of the child. It was becoming a self-conscious negative act, requiring mind-body split for both children and adults, the latter being controlled more by fear than a commitment to caring (p. iix).

They explored this trend more deeply in a large-scale study that analysed touch related documentation from over 400 settings involving children. They also did case studies of five different schools, observing and interviewing pupils and teachers and analysing their touch related documentation. Their schools included a preschool, a primary/junior school, a secondary school, a school that catered to children with severe physical and emotional difficulties, and a residential school; thus there are some similarities that can be drawn with residential child care. Their chief aim was to develop a deeper insight into the socio-cultural practices, beliefs and meanings related to touching between and amongst children and adults in these schools.

Piper and Stronach’s analysis of the touch related documentation revealed a disproportionate response to an exaggerated risk of harm to children by adults touching them. Sexual abuse, or the misperception of sexually abusive behaviour, appears to be the dominant risk addressed by most policies despite evidence that most sexual abuse takes place within the family. Many organisations had adopted no-touch policies. Others attempted to reduce risk by universal pre and proscriptions addressing the minutiae of adult-child interactions, with a particular emphasis on surveillance. In one instance, staff are strongly encouraged to use verbal means of reassurance, in place of touch, if a child becomes distressed; in another, there is an explicit statement that staff do not place bobbles or clips in children’s hair; in yet another, staff are told to ensure that suncream is applied in view of other staff. There are even prohibitions against touching genitals when holding a young person, or against making physical contact with an intention to sexually arouse. One is left wondering to whom the latter two prohibitions are addressed.

Actually, much of the documentation is aimed at protecting staff and organisations from false accusation or from a child misconstruing their actions. In fact, the English National Care Standards prescribes this orientation with its statement, “it is important that staff avoid putting themselves in a situation that may lead to allegations being made against them” (cited in Piper and Stronach, p.23). Piper and Stronach identify a logic that is emerging, one they label “at risk of being at risk”. Initially they intended to assist sites in the development of touch related guidelines, but over the course of the study they concluded that guidelines tended, overall, to have a more negative impact than positive contribution. Such guidelines reflect and embody touch related fears, escalating them rather than engendering confidence.

The findings of the case studies also supported Piper and Stronach’s above-stated premise. Even schools that described themselves in touchy-feely terms exhibited self-defensive practices and confusion about legislation and guidelines. Practices were predicated on a presumption of possible guilt. While the importance of touch in the development of children was acknowledged, there was no agreement as to the parameters of its use. “In short, the case studies confirmed that professionals and carers have learned how not to trust themselves, and to call that damaging condition “safety” (p.137).

There was one exception: Summerhill School. Summerhill is a residential “free” school where class attendance is voluntary. Pupils and staff, on a one person/one vote status, decide how the school is run. The mechanism for this process is the Meeting, where issues of privacy, rights and the proper running of the school are openly discussed, debated, and decided upon; frequently, the outcome of these decisions is the creation or elimination of rules. Thus it is a school which is less subject to bureaucratic forms of regulation (at least from within), and instead regulates itself through democratic self-governance. Rules are collectively owned and changed to serve changing needs. Breaches of rules are also collectively considered and addressed, with high levels of commitment to and ownership of the process.

The Meeting supports an approach to moral development where everyone participates in constructing a clear sense of right and wrong; qualities of trust, equal rights, responsibilities, commitment and honesty are embodied and promoted in its processes. Close relationships variously amongst children and staff are also central to the way this school works. Within this context, touch is not a sensitive issue. It is so embedded into relationships that attempting to divorce it as a somehow separate phenomenon is nonsensical. Some of the staff and young people found the concept of no-touch policies inconceivable, and the researchers felt “ridiculous” or “pervy” when they attempted to bring up touch related questions.

And as the bringers-up, we became unwilling agents of the same sexualised culture of “risk” [outside the school] that we were committed to investigate impartially, even though there was no impartiality out there for us to adopt as a stance. We came away from our first field trip feeling in parts both guilty and silly. As outsiders, we felt contaminating (p.122).

Piggy back rides, for instance, are common place at Summerhill, despite being identified as inappropriate by Social Services inspectors. Shoulder massages are embedded in the culture, and located within relationship: some do it; some don’t – according to the background, national culture and dispositions of both students and staff. Again, this was highlighted by an inspector and after extended discussion and debate, he (the inspector) conceded that it wasn’t necessarily inappropriate but it was inappropriate to do in front of him. Because Meetings promote openness, candour, exploration and democracy, secrets are rare if not, indeed, non-existent. The school, and the students within it, are also well equipped to address transgressions whether or not they relate to touch. Because day-to-day, seemingly minor transgressions are consistently and openly addressed, more significant transgressions are much less possible.

Summerhill does not explicitly cater to children (or families) experiencing difficulties. It has not suffered scandals of abuse. Its workers do not work under the shadow of suspicion by association, and it has managed to resist significant contamination by the media and by audit cultures. Yet, significant parallels with residential child care can still be drawn. Summerhill does appear to identify its primary task in broader developmental terms. Its work is carried out within a highly relational context, and construction of meaning is a central component of the work.

In our struggle to keep touch integrated as a natural and essential part of providing care to children, we are wise to strongly resist it being separated from the wider context of relationships. Universal proscriptions fail to address the complexity of relationship, the particulars of a situation, and the individual needs of a child. Policies cannot be relied upon to replace professional judgement. However, if we engage with critical reflection and candour in our team meetings; if we are robust in the way we use supervision, if we cogently resist the ridiculousness meted out by the fearful and ill-informed; and if we approach kids with courage and openness, placing them first, we will be in a much stronger position to genuinely touch (and be touched by) the lives of kids and their families in ways that heal.


Johnson, R.T. (2000). Hands off! The disappearance of touch in the care of children. New York: Peter Lang.

Ward, A. (1990). The role of physical contact in childcare. Children and Society, 4, pp. 337-351. (See also Ward, A. (1999). ‘Residential staff should not touch children’: Can we really look after children in this way? In A. Hardwick and J. Woodhead (Eds.), Loving, hating and survival: A handbook for all who work with troubled children and young people. Aldershot: Ashgate Arena.)

Piper, H. and Stronach, I. (2008). Don’t touch! The educational story of a panic. London: Routeledge Taylor & Francis Group.

From: CYC-Online, 130: December 2009