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  • Feb4Wed

    Is all touch inappropriate?

    February 4, 2015
    Filed Under:
    Vulnerable Sector

    According to the National Post, the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association this week sent coaches an email noting restrictions on when men can be in dressing rooms, a ban on social media interactions, and strict rules regarding email communication. (National Post: February 3, 2015)

    Though I can appreciate restrictions being put in place, knowing they will reduce the risk of abuse, I wonder if some restrictions have not gone too far.  The Toronto girls hockey league also told coaches they cannot touch players on the bench — not even on their helmets. 

    Following a complaint about congratulations doled out by a volunteer parent, the communication also stated, “On bench behaviour – under no circumstances should there be contact with the players, in any way,” reads the email from John Reynolds, who runs the house league. “Putting hands on shoulders, slapping butts, tapping them on the helmet, NOTHING, this can make some of the girls uncomfortable and you won’t know which ones, so no contact, period.”

    Leaside sent out the email following a complaint about an “on bench congratulation that was not deemed appropriate,” said Leaside President, Jennifer Smith. It involved a parent volunteer slapping a player’s bum and squeezing a player’s shoulders, said Ms. Smith. It wasn’t considered to be serious, but it was taken seriously nonetheless and addressed with the individual.

    Dr. Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University social work professor, said a question of reasonableness has instead become a zero tolerance policy.

    “That’s where we actually seem to be doing more disservice to children than helping them,” said Dr. Ungar, author of Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive. “Do we really want a world where children are never touched in a friendly way, and therefore can’t distinguish good touches from bad touches?”

    A zero tolerance policy, Dr. Ungar argues, “is not keeping children safe, it’s endangering them” because it denies them opportunities for appropriate social development through contact.

    I tend to agree with Dr. Ungar on this topic as it has never been the intention of Plan to Protect® to embrace a standard of never showing the vulnerable sector appropriate forms of affirmation and affection.  Role modelling interaction with integrity and appropriate care are keys to nurturing healthy relationships. 

    Plan to Protect® recommends that organizations establish policies and procedures that ensure that all personnel are on the same page when it comes to the definition of appropriate touch. 

    Our recommended policies state that children and youth need appropriate displays of affection that reflect pure, genuine and positive displays of love. Appropriate touch of children should be age and developmentally appropriate. 

    We encourage Program Personnel to:

    • Hold a preschool child who is crying,
    • Speak to a child at eye level and listen with your eyes as well as your ears,
    • Hold a child’s hand when speaking, listening or walking with him or her to an activity,
    • Gently hold the child’s shoulder or hand to keep his or her attention while you redirect the child’s behaviour,
    • Put your arm around the shoulder of a child when comforting or quieting is needed,
    • Pat a child on the head, hand, shoulder or back to affirm him or her, and
    • Remember that all touch must be done in view of others.

    Recognizing that the innocence of children must be protected, inappropriate touch includes,

    • Kissing or coaxing a child to kiss you,
    • Engaging in extended hugging and tickling,
    • Holding a child’s face when talking to or disciplining the child,
    • Touching a child in any area that would be covered by a bathing suit (strictly prohibited except in cases of diapering and assisting preschoolers as outlined in washroom procedures),
    • Carrying older children and allowing them to sit on your lap, and
    • Prolonged physical contact with a Child.

    I believe that one of the most important policies, as it relates to appropriate touch, is that we should avoid isolation with minors, and all touch should indeed be done in view of others. 

    Organizations such as hockey clubs should state in writing what they have determined as appropriate touch.  This policy should be clearly communicated at the beginning of a program year to personnel, parents and students.  It could be communicated in a newsletter or handbook, and given to parents when they register their children for the program. 

    We cannot be intimated to change all of our policies and procedures because one parent is saying you they do not like the interaction with their child. However, if a parent raises a concern, it could be applied to that one child only. Affirming a child by giving them a high five or a side hug, or the light tap on the helmet is far from inappropriate. Pats on the bum would be considered inappropriate as it involves touching children in any area that would be covered with a bathing suit.

    Although not explicitly stated in the email, fist-bumping or high fives may be allowed, Ms. Smith said. ‘‘What we recommend, what Hockey Canada recommends, is you do a fist bump, like a high five, end of story.

    To avoid miscommunication, inconsistent communication, and knee-jerk reactions in these situations, all decisions regarding the interaction with minors and appropriate touch with the vulnerable sector should be made at the leadership level of an organization. The decisions should then be put into a policy and procedure handbook, communicated to personnel and parents, and closely monitored. 

    Let’s not go overboard and sacrifice role-modelling to children what healthy boundaries are.  I take great pleasure seeing teachers, pastors, coaches, and mentors affirm my children in their accomplishments and successes.  Let’s not rob our children of this appropriate nurturing care.  We are made to respond to touch … let’s just make sure all touch demonstrates respect and care. 

    Finally, I appreciated a poster I saw at Benton Street Baptist Church in Kitchener, ON, Canada encouraging relationship building among leaders and children, accountability and safety. Notice how these positive guidelines promote caring interaction.

    • Make a point of showing affection to all children in open places.
    • Touch children in safe places.
    • If a child needs to be comforted, do it by placing your arm around a shoulder and giving a gentle hug from the side.
    • Always respect the integrity of the child. Allow him/her to back away from your well-intentioned affection if he/she wishes.
    • If the child needs to have a private conversation with you always stay in view of the group or leave a door open.
    • Two-adult rule: Attempt at all times to have two adults who are not in the same family caring for children.


    On Thursday, February 5, 2015, Miriam Telfer said:

    Well said. Totally agree. We have a policy in place for appropriate touch. A world without touch would be a cold place.


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