First Contact

The Touch Research Institute promotes the laying on of healing hands

But in the mid-Eighties, alarmed over the rising number of allegations of molestation made against teachers, du Fresne delivered new advice during a meeting of school union representatives. "Here are the words I never wanted to say," she recalls. "Do not touch a child to help them; do not touch a child to hurt them. Do not touch a child. If you must touch a child, make sure there is a second adult there. People stood and said, 'I've taught elementary school for 25 years. If I can't give a kid a hug when they do good or they're sad, I won't even know how to function. These are little kids!' And I said, 'You pay me to give you legal advice. I am telling you that the risk of touch having a negative impact on your professional life is so high that my advice is not to touch.'" Du Fresne says that risk includes a suspension or revocation of one's teaching license and up to $30,000 in legal fees to battle an accusation in administrative and criminal courts.

Du Fresne's legal tip is similar to the recommendation of the National Education Association, which represents 2.2 million teachers across the country. Now boiled down to a slogan, the union's official line is "Teach, don't touch."

Two years ago Field had a run-in with Dade schools over the issue when she proposed a study on children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). "We had data showing that autistic kids benefit from massage, which we did in a private school in Broward, and I figured there's got to be a direct application to ADD kids. The ADD problem is one of the biggest problems any school system has," she says. The response from the school board: "They said that we couldn't touch the kids. I couldn't really even make my case or anything. It was very disappointing."

"We felt the research was sound, but this was not the setting to conduct a study like that," remembers Dr. Joe Gomez, chairman of the schools' research review committee. "The idea of touching and massaging the students just made a lot of people on the committee uncomfortable."

Undeterred, Field is now engaged in a three-year cross-cultural study comparing the incidence of touch and physical affection in France and the United States, in hopes of showing how touch -- or the lack thereof -- corresponds to levels of aggression and violence. For one month every summer, she travels to Paris and, clipboard in hand, posts herself in outdoor cafes, McDonald's restaurants, and schoolyards, observing the behavior of children, parents, and teachers while checking off what she sees on a chart every ten seconds. She uses the same procedure for recording stateside behavior.

Field has one summer of research to go but is enthusiastic about what she has seen so far. "It's turning out just like we predicted," she beams. "What we're finding is that French parents and teachers alike are more physically affectionate and the kids are significantly less aggressive."

All of which is no surprise to Field. "France is on top of the touch chart and on the bottom of the violence chart," she says. "The U.S. is on the top of the violence chart and on the bottom of the touch chart. That's an observation, and of course there are a million factors, and of course you never really sort out what's going on with all the other interrelated variables. But it's interesting. It's suggestive."

As for what she hopes to accomplish, Field says her idealized vision of American society is not extreme, just parents massaging their children at bedtime, parents and friends massaging each other, school kids lining up for massage trains in gym class, acquaintances greeting each other with hugs instead of handshakes. "I think that people are going to believe the medical data, that unless you have a dose of touch you're going to have high cortisol levels, and that's going to have effects on your health." She adds hopefully, "I think they'll believe that, and they'll come to appreciate the benefit of touch.

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