reach out and touch, but think first (part 2 – wise physical touch)

As a culture, I fear we have grown afraid to touch each other. Thankfully, parents are no longer subjected to the nonsense of B.F. Skinner and his behaviorist notions that comforting a crying child only reinforces the behavior of crying. Google “baby in a box Skinner” to see the lunatic fringe this absurd idea reached in the 1940s and 1950s. We did swing the pendulum pretty far toward the “group hug” mentality for a while after that, but I think we may hang out at the no-touch end of the continuum for the foreseeable future.

Throw in the H1N1 and Avian flu craziness of the past few years and it’s a wonder we don’t all walk around in plastic shells to completely avoid all physical touch.

We’ve always been more standoffish physically than, say, the French, or just about all of Latin America. We see the ways men in particular greet one another in such cultures (which also includes the Middle East) and our homophobia kicks into high gear. Throw in the H1N1 and Avian flu craziness of the past few years and it’s a wonder we don’t all walk around in plastic shells to completely avoid all physical touch.

The thing is, if we did, we would lose a huge piece of what makes us human. We simply cannot thrive without human touch. The horror stories of children in huge orphanages who can barely function due to lack of caregiver attention are not entirely sensationalistic. Hal Urban, author of Positive Words, Powerful Results, writes the following about the importance of touch:

A gentle touch or an affectionate hug, tendered in an appropriate setting, can be a powerful way to strengthen our words. Just as the right choice of tone can make our kind words softer, the right choice of touch can make them warmer.

For a long time the skin was looked upon as nothing more than a covering for the body. But extensive research in both biology and physiology has taught us differently. Alan Loy McGinnis, an author and family therapist, says, “More than half a million sensory fibers flow from the skin through the spinal cord to the brain. As a sensory system, it is the most important organ of the body.” This is the main reason that gentle touching is part of therapy. It can stimulate people who are starving for affection. McGinnis adds that “when it is a genuine expression of affection, touch can bring you closer to another than can thousands of words.” (from Positive Words, Powerful Results: Simple Ways to Honor, Affirm, and Celebrate Life)

When I heard Hal speak at an all-district professional development meeting some years ago, he described how he creates a high-five or handshake ritual with each student. Some might prefer a fist bump, others may go in for the hug. More and more, we see a handshake/hug hybrid exemplified by Shaq and Kobe (see Dr. Richard Beck’s excellent analysis of non-verbal welcome at his blog Experimental Theology). Not only does the energy flow, as it were, between adult and student, it also creates a unique bond.

Scripture definitely supports the role of physical touch within the body of Christ. Boys always seem disappointed or even grossed out when you tell them that it’s only the “brothers” we greet with a “holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26), not the sisters too. (Joke, get it?) Jesus touched sinners and lepers, and by touching them healed many, all through His ministry. His disciples tried to shoo away children brought to Jesus by their parents. Instead, He called the children to Himself, hugged on them and touched them, and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). It’s interesting to note that the word used for “child” indicated young people up through the age of 12, as 13 was the age of manhood (it still is in Jewish culture). If a “child” that Jesus would touch and love on is anybody up to the age of culturally recognized adulthood, I’d say middle school and high school students today fall into that category.

I make it a point to either greet each of my students with a face-to-face “hugshake” or fist bump, touch them on the arm or shoulder, or some similarly nonthreatening way, every time we gather.

All of this speaks of healthy, caring physical contact with students. I make it a point to either greet each of my students with a face-to-face “hugshake” or fist bump, touch them on the arm or shoulder, or some similarly nonthreatening way, every time we gather. It’s a far cry from the “bad touch” that we so diligently teach our children to run away from. It also avoids what I view to be an unhealthy cultural paranoia against all touch between children and non-family adults. Case in point: Recently some of our male leaders took a handful of boys to a college baseball game. Classic male bonding ritual. It was mostly cloudy that day but we still recognized the need for sun protection. One of the leaders whipped out a bottle of spray-on sunscreen and boasted how “youth worker friendly” it was. In other words, no touching required. Hmm. I think they could have managed without his help anyway, but is that what it’s come to?

There are differences of opinion and local church policy as to the spectrum of appropriate and allowable physical touch between adult youth workers and students or children. What follows is how I decide how and when to engage in healthy touch. (Just a reminder – this is my opinion and mine alone. It does not represent any official statements from the ministry I serve in, although I feel it’s completely consistent with our policies.)

  • Know your common sense -
    • Don’t do things that get people arrested.
    • Touching a student (of the same or opposite sex) anywhere in the “swim suit area” is just stupid. Don’t do it. Avoid even casual contact that may inadvertently graze by.
    • Youth group should be a safe place for students – physically and emotionally.

      With more physically active kids, you need heightened awareness. Whether you’re playing touch football or just rough-housing, it’s harder to watch where bodies are going. It also helps to remember that students can get hurt when they play hard with an adult. It’s safer to fling a kid across a pool than across a room, but always be the adult. Don’t get carried away. Youth group should be a safe place for students – physically and emotionally.
    • Never share a bed or sleeping bag with a student, unless you’re his father (or her mother).
    • Corporal punishment has no place in church youth ministry.
    • If a student has become upset or violent, do your best to maintain the safety of yourself, that student, and surrounding students, without physically restraining unless absolutely necessary.
  • Know your ministry boundaries -
    • Does your ministry have specific guidelines regarding physical touch? Make sure you are aware of them, and ask that they be developed if they haven’t been.
    • Most ministries will state that youth workers shall concentrate ministry on students of the same gender. Be aware of the nuances when dealing with the same gender vs. the opposite gender as yourself.
    • Intimate hugs, intimate backrubs, and sitting on laps (regardless of the student’s gender) are probably bad ideas in most circumstances.
  • Know your individual students -
    • While the “Five Love Languages” don’t necessarily encompass all the nuanced ways in which people experience love and emotional fulfillment, there are some kids who respond more eagerly to a hug, pat on the back, or touch on the arm. Others won’t be as comfortable.
    • Physical touch should always be in response to the needs of the student, not the youth worker. If you need a hug, don’t thrust yourself upon the first kid you find. (Brian Kirk at Rethinking Youth Ministry asks, “Do you want to offer touch to share God’s love to the teen or do you yourself need physical contact? What is your real motivation?”) Maintain healthy adult friendships, starting with your spouse if you have one.
    • Some families are more touchy-feely than others. Learn which are and which are not, and respect their preferences.
    • Don’t play favorites. Don’t hug all over some kids and relegate others to fist-bumps only.

As always, I’d love your feedback. In what ways have you found touch to be a means of strengthening relationships with students? What cautions have I neglected to mention?

See also:
Part 1 – Banish Paranoia
Part 3 – Digital Connections

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About andrew burden

andrew blogs about being a volunteer youth leader, teacher, video editor, husband, friend, child of God
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