I taught school in the days when teachers were allowed to hug a student who was having a bad day, a student who might not get much affection at home, or simply because the student wanted a hug. Today, thanks to adults who are incapable of drawing the line or controlling unnatural impulses, teachers have to restrain this loving impulse for fear they’ll be considered a pedophile. Much has been lost, for humans and society, as a result. More, perhaps, than we realize.
Over the years, research has raised awareness of the power of touch. The skin is the body’s largest organ. When touched, its sensory receptors are stimulated and the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin, is released. That’s why a warm hug can make a person feel so good. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we relate more through social media than through a firm handshake or a hug. And even when we’re around others, we hold back, especially in the workplace and in schools, for fear of the gesture being misinterpreted. So human connection is reduced to the internet or to fist bumps. But even a fist bump helps, because the benefits of touch are many, and, sadly, many people go through their week without ever feeling the comfort of another human’s touch.
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, has conducted extensive research on the benefits of touch. According to Dr. Field, touch facilitates weight gain in preterm infants, improves attentiveness and immune function, eases symptoms of depression, and reduces pain and stress hormones.
Even more important for the purposes of this blog, are the social functions of touch. Research by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, shows that touch can provide a feeling of reward, can reinforce reciprocity, signal safety, and soothe.
Dr. Keltner describes people in North America and England as “touch deprived.” In one study, conversations between friends were recorded during a set period of time. In England, the participants did not touch at all during their time together. In the United States, they touched two times. In Puerto Rico, those conversing touched 180 times.
Dr. Field also did some research on touch in other countries. In one study, “French and American preschool children were observed on playgrounds with their parents and peers. The American children played with their parents, talked with and touched their parents less and were more aggressive toward their parents. During peer interactions, the American children also showed less touching their peers and more grabbing their peers’ toys, more aggression toward their peers and more fussing.” In other words, American preschoolers are touched less and are more aggressive than preschoolers in France.
In another Field study, “adolescents were observed at McDonalds’ restaurants in Paris and Miami to assess the amount of touching and aggression during their peer interactions. The American adolescents spent less time leaning against, stroking, kissing, and hugging their peers than did the French adolescents. Instead they showed more self-touching and more aggressive verbal and physical behavior.” Field concluded that American adolescents touch each other less and are more aggressive toward their peers when compared with French adolescents.
Might the research of Dr. Keltner and Dr. Field provide insight into bullying? It would be interesting to know if the rates of bullying are lower in Puerto Rico than in the U.S.
Might a light touch on the shoulder make a bully feel better and therefore less likely to torment another, because he has a greater need to be kind, i.e. reward and reciprocity?
Might a hug for a victim make them feel safe and soothed, less alone and, perhaps, less likely to commit suicide?
Do young people become bullies because they get no cuddling as babies, few hugs as children, not even a back pat as an adolescent?
Might the solution to bullying be as simple as making certain all children get a goodly share of touch?
Even without research to prove the need, it’s a simple idea that can be put into effect immediately. Parents can spend more physical time snuggling with their children. Fathers, particularly, should hug and kiss their sons more often.
Even if they can’t offer a hug, teachers can touch a child’s shoulder or provide a pat on the back if he or she is having a bad day.
A classmate should be free to hug another who is being bullied, without fear of fallout.
Perhaps the solution to bullying really is as simple as the human touch, beginning with infants and continuing throughout life.
According to Dr. Keltner, the artist Michaelangelo is reported to have said, “To touch is to give life.” Perhaps we’ve had the answer to bullying all along.
(All photos from Photobucket.)