Tam Baillie, appointed by the Scottish Government to champion children’s issues, said many professional carers and volunteers were scared to touch a child who was not related to them because of concern over how those actions might be perceived.
Baillie’s comments come in advance of a meeting of a panel of children’s experts this week which will debate the notion that “Touching children shouldn’t be taboo, it should be an expectation”.
The panel, which includes Baillie as well as a number of academics, teachers and care workers, will examine why touching children – for example by patting a shoulder or soothing an injured child – in schools and in care has become almost forbidden.
The debate, part of a Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Edinburgh, will hear the view that touch can be soothing, emotionally healing and stress reducing and question why adults have become so wary. It is being held against a background of a number of high-profile sexual abuse cases – such as the Rochdale scandal in which 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation, and Operation Yewtree, which is investigating allegations of child abuse by the late Jimmy Savile and others – which have heightened public concern
Baillie told Scotland on Sunday: “The pendulum of safety has swung far too far so that we don’t have a natural relationship with children and so that people, especially males, are wary of being misinterpreted if they hug a child or whatever. There are stories of people not wanting to engage with children or not wanting to volunteer if they feel they might be under too much suspicion.
“Of course we have to ensure our children are properly protected, but we have to be much more attentive to the messages that come from children if we are to get ourselves out of the position we’re in now, which is almost too hot to handle.”
He added: “This is a serious matter and it’s to do with how touch is actually necessary for children’s development. There is something very fundamental about touch.
“If you want any better example of us not listening to children it’s what’s happening right now with the Savile case and the young women in Rochdale. I think we’re on the cusp of having to re-examine how well we listen to children and young people because this isn’t going to go away.”
The Scottish Government’s National Guidance for Child Protection outlines ways to keep children safe within schools and the care system. However, although many teachers and carers are now reluctant to touch children because of fears over how they may be perceived, there is no written legislation providing limits.
Gillian Hunt, workforce learning and development manager at Edinburgh City Council’s children and families department, who is chairing the event, said: “We are doing very well at keeping children and young people safe and we feel what we want to do is have a conversation about how we connect with children. We do have really mixed ideas about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
“One of the stories we have been told is about a parent sending a child on a school trip with suntan lotion and a note to the teacher to apply it to their nose and arms, and the child coming back sunburnt. Teachers are sometimes on the point of saying ‘I can’t put suntan lotion on a child’. It’s a conversation we need to have.”
Alison Todd, director of children and families of the charity Children 1st, said: “Touch can be vital to children’s development and happiness. In our early years’ work with parents and carers we talk a lot about the importance of showing children they are loved.
“We encourage parents to use physical contact, such as cuddling their children, because this can reduce stress, soothe a child and demonstrate affection.
“In other settings things are not so clear cut. Adults, for instance, may lack confidence in knowing when physical contact is the right thing to do or when it is inappropriate.”
Mark Smith, a senior lecturer in social work at Edinburgh University, who will be speaking at the panel, said defining what was acceptable in terms of touching could be a wrong move.
He said: “I’m not sure we should be thinking that much about it because touch ought to be something that’s fairly natural. When we start to say this is a good touch or a bad touch then we start to actually introduce a possibility that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Some experts believe allowing carers to touch in acceptable ways will help in dealing with vulnerable children. Recent research conducted by Strathclyde University shows that some children in residential care in Scotland are so desperate to be physically touched they will seek out physical restraint, because they are unlikely to receive any other form of human touch.