When adults ask children to solve their fear

I have come to the conclusion that we are living in a time of great fear. I’m not saying that because fear is unusual within the course of human history. I’m saying it because I don’t think we recognize it. And I think our children are paying a price for our inability to look at our fear.

Midland Road Nursery and Children's Centre, in Bradford, who promote the cuddles they give on their website

Midland Road Nursery and Children’s Centre, in Bradford, who promote the cuddles they give on their website

What has prompted me to make such a

strong statement? It is a short, online article on the Day Nurseries website, posted earlier this month, entitled ‘Nurseries adopt ‘no kissing’ policy to protect staff from being accused of abuse’.

The article begins with the following statement:

“Many nurseries in the UK have adopted a ‘no kissing’ policy to protect their staff from being accused of abuse, however some argue children are being affected by bans on kissing and cuddling.”

The article gives examples of the ways that various nursery settings are coping with the worry about abuse.

“Twinkle Star Day Nursery in Portsmouth has a strict policy on contact with staff which says ‘Children are encouraged to be independent, therefore prolonged periods of cuddling and sitting on practitioners’ laps is discouraged. Kissing of children is forbidden and may result in a disciplinary.’”

“One nursery manager says she even goes as far as not to even kiss her own daughter while in nursery, saying on a chat forum ‘I do tell my staff not to kiss children and explain the reasons for it is to protect them from any allegations. Children naturally come to you for a kiss and a cuddle and we always turn to the side so that they can kiss our cheeks. I don’t even kiss my own daughter whilst in nursery.”

The author of the article, Sue Learner, tries hard to make clear that such policies are embedded in a wider debate.

“Reaction to the policy seems to be divided among parents, with some approving, while others echo the sentiments of one parent on a chat forum who said: “The thought of a small baby in a nursery going all day without a kiss from someone makes me quite sad.”

“The Managing Director at Acorn Childcare believes it is important to be led by the child on kissing and cuddling. She talked about the issue with her staff and concluded: Children need and enjoy lots of cuddles.”

“As a male member of staff I have never faced being questioned about hugging a child. I offer hugs as reassurance to children and accept them if children want them….It would be neglectful to not give a child a hug [when]…there is a strong likelihood they would need one. “


From the Facebook page for Soquel Parent Education Nursery School (California)

From the Facebook page for Soquel Parent Education Nursery School (California)

Human beings come into this world with brains built for emotional connection. The science confirms that we are physiologically dependent on it for our survival. If we live a life lacking in affection, our spirit withers. If the feeling of being ignored gets bad enough, we die. That was the point of media stories in the past about Eastern European orphanages. The children in them died from lack of love. So let me say it again: Human beings are physiologically dependent on emotional connection with other people. Connection isn’t an abstract concept. It is an embodied process, created through actions shared between fleshy human bodies.

We have a problem in today’s 21st century world. Several problems actually, all of them interlinked. One is that we parents work outside the home, so our children are left in the care of other people – other people who begin as and often remain strangers to us. We cover up this element of things by calling those strangers ‘professionals’. The second is that we now know, as a society, that sexual abuse goes on. We did not openly know this until the 1970s, when the feminist movement bravely forced us to acknowledge that. The third is that we love our children very much and we do not want them to be at risk of being hurt by the trauma of sexual abuse. The fourth is that the professional people who do the caring of other people’s children do not want to be at risk either, by being suspected of abuse.

So we have ended up scared. Scared of risk. Scared of what some adults do — in secret. Scared of what other adults might think, mistakenly — of us. Scared of what regulatory bodies might conclude and act on. Scared of our own children. We are made anxious by our children’s physiological, evolutionary, human desire for physical affection – from us.

Our fear leads us to deny their need. As quoted in the article, we tell ourselves that we are ‘encouraging independence’. We tell ourselves that we are keeping them ‘safe’. We tell ourselves that if we ‘explain to our children what the rules do and don’t allow’ that should satisfy them.

I want us to stop kidding ourselves. I want us to understand that the science is telling us how great is the human physiological need for trustworthy physical affection. When we do not get that as adults, we suffer. When we do not get that as children, we knit suffering into our growing neural pathways.

A still from Harry Harlow's work on the importance of touch.

A still from Harry Harlow’s work on the importance of touch.

This was the point of Harry Harlow’s experimental studies of primates  in the 1950s. He showed that infant monkeys have a stronger need for touch than they do for food.

The films of traumatised baby monkeys are gut-wrenching to watch. They are easy to find on the web these days. I’ve embedded some links in this blog, to make it easy to click on them. One of them is called The Pit of Despair’.

I want us to stand and look upon this despair. I want us to face this suffering and feel our guts twist. Because it is from suffering that compassion comes. I want that compassion to help us understand this is how much our children need touch and affection. I want us to understand that touch gives them emotional security. I want us to recognize that so many of our children today live lives barren of touch. They spend their days in nurseries with anti-touch policies; their spend their travel time in plastic containers called buggies and car seats; they spend their nights in cots in their own room; they spend their anxious times alone because their parents have been encouraged to use ‘controlled crying’ as an approach to ‘behaviour management’.

When we look away from our babies’ emotional need, dressed up in the language of ‘independence’ and ‘safer care’, we are kidding ourselves. We do not keep our children safe by doing that. Rather, we leave them feeling isolated, alone, and eventually ashamed, as the psychotherapist Robin Grille highlights.  I want us to feel strong enough to look upon what we are currently doing, to feel our guts wrench, and then to use that realization not to blame anyone, but to fix the problem.

When I sent out that Day Nursery article to colleagues, some of whom are leading child care experts in the country, responses that I received back included:

  • “This is about adults, not children.”
  • “I wish I knew the solution. I do not think there is one at this time.”
  • “You see this all the time with fostered children too, you know. Our Safer Care policies reduce healing because they discourage touch. The policies are safer for the adults than they are for the children.”

Ironically, I had a correspondent write on the same day to ask about how physical touch could be encouraged from staff working with adults with special needs.

“I have memories of a very different culture when it was much more usual for people with profound mental and learning disabilities to be out of their moulded chairs, where there was more use physical contact, more use of the whole body, more being more able to get physically closer to someone than is possible when you are both sitting in chairs opposite each other. There seemed to be a less formal, more playful atmosphere in those days.”

Thus, our fear stretches beyond our children. We are now scared of each other: our colleagues, our neighbours, our strangers. We are scared of our service users, our clients and our patients. We are scared of our children. We are scared of ourselves. I am scared.

I am scared in sending out this blog. It is hard to say these things so publicly. I do not want anyone to feel blamed or defensive or angry. Defensiveness is another form of fear. Fear gets in the way of finding a solution. I am scared of what people may say in reaction to what I am saying. I am fighting my fear by trusting what Brene Brown says about the power of offering our vulnerability to the world.

So what to do to break out of the prison of fear we have built for ourselves? The first step is simply to turn and face our fear — to face one of the sabre tooth tigers confronting us as society: we now recognize that sexual abuse exists, that it occurs in secret, and that it can cause lasting damage. Yes, I agree. This is scary.

The second step is to forgive ourselves. We forgive ourselves for what we did not know about babies’ emotional needs, forgive ourselves for acts we have committed and omitted in the midst of our not knowing. We stay focused on our intentions, because having confidence in our intentions leaves us better placed to come up with healthier solutions to what is a terribly conflicted situation. On the one hand, the news tells us that professional carers have committed abuse against children. On the other, the science tells us that our children need touch for their well-being. Thus, the task that faces us is to hold simultaneously both of these realities in our awareness and to come up with solutions that do not unintentionally cause further damage.

The Day Nurseries article ends with a reference to my own work:

“One way of getting around the issue of what is ‘appropriate touch’ is to get the children to give each other cuddles. Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland, carried out a Cuddle Circles project at Happy Days Nursery in Dundee which involved children giving each other a daily cuddle.”

The project wasn’t mine. It was the brilliant idea of staff at Happy Days Nursery. I talk about their idea all the time, crediting them, and describing the outcomes that they observed resulting from their innovative practice. Their children quickly became more empathic, engaged and calmer. They were less often frustrated, quarreled less, were more willing to share toys. Their self-regulatory capacities were being strengthened, which I would now describe as building an inner teddy bear.

Children at Happy Days Nursery in Dundee, from their website

Children at Happy Days Nursery in Dundee, from their website

But crucially: at Happy Days Nursery, cuddle circles don’t replace adult touch. The adults participate too. The adults at Happy Days Nursery in Dundee cuddle and touch children. Loudly and proudly.

We are definitely living in a time of fear if we adults are so scared to touch our toddlers that we get other toddlers to do it for us.

We are definitely living in a time of fear if, as I quoted above from the original article, a mother feels compelled to deny her own daughter kisses because they are both in the nursery where the mother happens to work. The wrenching of readers’ guts, on hearing such a story, tell us this cannot be a healthy solution. I salute this mother’s willingness to tell her story, and I hope that there might be something in this blog, should she come upon it, that opens up for her a place to seek additional solutions to the confusing pressure she is finding herself under.

Image chosen to illustrate the Guardian's coverage of debates on childcare costs, Feb 2012

Image chosen to illustrate the Guardian’s coverage of debates on childcare costs, Feb 2012

For it is not only she who must feel confused. Her daughter must also feel confused, and somehow hurt and isolated. She is being asked to learn to live in a world where her mother can be in the same room with her but is not available for kisses.

Let us fight fear. Not just on behalf of our children, but on behalf of ourselves.


11 thoughts on “When adults ask children to solve their fear

  1. Adekunbi

    As adult in her forties, I know how I feel when am given a hug, especially when feeling down. For the children I work with a hug or a cuddle is letting them know they are loved, which helps to continue to build their confidence and self-worth. Hmmmmmm, how can I say I love my job as SENCo and EYP and not be able to touch the children.
    Well done, keep up the great work.



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