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Touching thoughts (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here)

Laura Steckley

In the March column, I reflected on my experiences of touch in practice when working in the United States. This month I finish the piece with my related experiences in Scotland.

I moved to Scotland in 1999, and by May I was working in a residential school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties. What a culture shock! It took months before I could understand half of the boys’ accents, and over a year for my head to stop spinning and my feet to find some solid ground. In addition to being in a different land and culture, this was my first experience of an all male resident population and there was a strong element of macho in the culture.

The boundaries around touch were much less stringent, for better and for worse. Horseplay was common. We sometimes sat on boys’ beds to speak or read to them. I gave piggyback rides with impunity. While it was a relief to be able to physically express affection in what felt like natural and spontaneous ways, there was also a darker undercurrent that made me uncomfortable. Before becoming a unit manager, Charlie (a colleague) confided that within horseplay, or more specifically ‘toy fighting’, male staff were subtly demonstrating to the boys that they could overpower them…and hurt them. There was an implicit message to the boys, seemingly understood by all, to remember their place. The colleague defended the practice as something men understood (and, therefore, I didn’t) and explained, patronisingly, that this kept everyone safe. Now I don’t think that all of the men in the school would have agreed with Charlie, but I don’t think they all would have disagreed with him either.

Charlie’s explanation shed light on why I was sometimes going home with fist sized bruises on my upper arms. You see, I was determined not to be slotted into the stereotypical female role at the school. So I played football and rough and tumbled with the best of them, something the boys (and likely some staff) found confusing. This physical play sometimes felt natural and ‘right’, and sometimes it gave me a stomach ache. The boys were asking me questions in many of these exchanges. What would I do if they purposely hurt me? Would I, could I, hurt them back? Was I safe?

This last question is a complicated one, because ‘safe’ doesn’t simply mean ‘I won’t hurt you’. It also means, ‘I can handle what you throw at me’. This toy fighting, with its punches on the arm and sometimes rough wrestling, was, in one sense, an attempt to confirm just that: ‘I’m big enough and strong enough to handle you.’ However, an important component was missing. Safe actually means ‘I can handle what you need to throw at me without hurting you’.

Fortunately, I had not been brought up (professionally) in such a macho culture, and I knew enough not to purposely hurt back. I also knew that going home sore wasn’t good for anyone.

A simple reaction might have been to put a stop to all horseplay and effect some clear, precise rules about how staff should physically engage with the boys. I certainly didn’t have the authority to do that, but I also didn’t want to. I had come from such a place and it didn’t work.

Instead, I started challenging individual incidents I thought were hurtful play, usually by asking questions. When I became a unit manager a few months later, I raised the issue with my new team. I began to use a catch phrase - ‘play shouldn’t hurt’ - and the boys seemed to get what I was talking about. In staff discussions, we began to explore (a bit, anyway) our own issues around power and control, and the roles we played in the boys’ lives. I also made clear that intentionally hurting a boy constituted abuse, and would be treated as such.

I don’t know how this all translated in practice when I wasn’t present. I suspect some of the staff also had discomfort about all this, and perhaps they had a sense of relief at having a way to respond to the boys without appearing weak. Instead of ignoring or suppressing the uncomfortable aspects of the work and those murky contexts where they often emerge, we began to explore them and use them for therapeutic gain. I say ‘began’ because these gains were modest and gradual. Some staff were more inclined than others to engage in such reflection, and I was still struggling to simultaneously hold onto what I knew best, and not be an arrogant American who thinks we all know better.

Interestingly, the school had far fewer restraints than the previous place I had worked. I’ve reflected a lot about why, and there are too many factors to explore here. But, I do think that our boundaries related to touch, overall, were probably more needs-meeting than transgressive (and became more so over time).

It is also interesting to me, looking back, that the moral panic I wrote about in March was still with me. The Head of Care and I went to see one of my boys in a secure unit. He had been sent there earlier in the day by the Children’s Panel (the replacement body of a juvenile court in Scotland), and this had come as a complete surprise to everyone. We were ushered into a windowless room, and then Eric was brought in, shocked and shaken. We talked for a bit about this and that (cigarettes, from what I can remember), and after a few short minutes we were told it was time to go. As we headed for the door, I remember giving this frightened, 15-year-old boy a full bear hug. I didn’t think about it first; I just did it. In the car on the way back to the unit, I began to worry a little about what my boss thought of our parting. I also wondered about how Eric felt, and whether the hug was more about meeting my needs or his. Eric and I had never had a tactile dimension to our relationship before. I was thinking about whether to raise it with my boss when he beat me to it. He said it was really something to see, watching this normally self contained kid cling on for dear life. I took that to mean both of them were okay with it.

So is it better to meet needs even when doing so opens up a greater possibility for transgression? Or is it better to try to eliminate the possibility altogether? Certainly, transgressions can and do occur in other dimensions of relationships between staff and young people; they’re just subtler and more difficult to proscribe. Take consequences, for instance. Can anyone claim to have worked in a place where a consequence was never levelled punitively? On such occasions, a similar message is imparted: ‘I can hurt you, psychologically, so know your place’. When we attempt to eliminate the possibilities for things to go wrong, when we cater to the lowest common denominator, we likely convey to kids one of two things: we’re not safe, or you’re not. Sterility, in the final analysis, isn’t safe. Piper and Stronach are correct; it makes no sense to separate touch from the wider context of relationship. It has taken the rap because it is more tangible, not because it is more problematic.


Piper, H. and Stronach, I. (2008). Don’t touch! The educational story of a panic. London: Routeledge Taylor & Francis Group.