“Too often we underestimate the power of touch—a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring—all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”—Leo Buscaglia, American author
Buscaglia’s thoughts on touch ring true in the field of parenting as much as they do in any life relationship. With infants and toddlers, touch is an everyday part of life, but as children grow older, many of them don’t want to be touched. Yet, researcher Tiffany Field has found that touch has a powerful effect on how kids grow. The more they’re touched in positive, appropriate ways, the more they thrive. With that said, I’ve composed a few simple tips for you to consider as you work to remember the power of touch in your everyday parenting:
• Think of touch as another way to communicate with your child. Whenever you pat your child on the shoulder, snuggle up to read together, or hug your child, you’re telling your child that you love him or her.
• Examine your comfort with touch. Some people enjoy more touch than others, and some have been wounded by inappropriate touch. Know yourself so that your issues of touch don’t get passed along to your kids.
• Talk about how touch has changed over previous generations.Some generations have maintained that “touch” was equal to “spoiling,” which resulted in very little touch. Some people have been more reticent to touch others because of all the news and litigation of inappropriate touch. Yet, kids need parents who touch them in supportive, loving, appropriate ways.
• Know your child’s preferences.Some enjoy playful touch, such as pillow fights and gentle wrestling. Others like hugs. Everyone is different, and kids often have their views of touch change as they grow older. For concrete ideas through the childhood years, read the article, How to Speak Love Language #1 – Physical Touch.
• If you or another family member is uncomfortable with appropriate touch, consider getting a pet to teach you about the joy of touching. Cats and dogs are usually ideal since they love to be petted and touched, and they make their needs known (such as when a cat crawls into your lap or a dog lies her head on your lap). As a family, play with your pet together so that family members can enjoy petting an animal. Then gradually expand to family members by rubbing each others shoulders or combing a child’s hair.
If you have a child under 5
• Frequently hold your infants and toddlers. Rock them. Cuddle with them. Pick them up when they cry. Let them sit in your lap when they want to. Positive touch is essential for raising young children well. The asset-building book What Young Children Need to Succeed includes lots of ideas on how to touch kids in positive ways from birth to age 11. Check out the book from your library, or find it online on Amazon.com.
• Play games that involve touch, such as having your child ride you like a horse. Blow raspberries onto your child’s tummy (as long as your child enjoys this). Tickle each other. Play with your infant’s hands and feet. Continue to play in these ways as long as your child smiles, giggles, and enjoys it.
• Make reading a part of your everyday routine. When you read to your child, have your child sit in your lap. Or snuggle up close together.
If you have a young child, between the ages of 6-9
• At this age, some children pull away from hugs and other types of touch. Look for touch that they like. For example, some kids enjoy sandwich hugs where you sandwich a family member in between two other family members and squeeze. Others enjoy arm wrestling.
• As your child learns to read, sit next to your child so that you’re touching. This often works best in a soft couch, oversized chair, or bed. Some kids may still enjoy sitting in your lap during reading times, but other kids may like the slight touch of your sides when you sit side by side.
• Play games that involve touch, such as tag; duck, duck, goose; and three-legged races.
If you have a tween or a young teen, between the ages of 10–15
• It’s often typical that kids at this age don’t want their parents anywhere near them (let alone touching them). Honor their needs for space, but don’t check out of their lives. When possible, touch their shoulders when you say you’re proud of them. Or ask your daughter if you can style her hair.
• If you coach or lead a club for kids at this age, make high-fives a regular part of your routine. For example, start out and end each session with high-fives. This type of touch often works well with kids at this age.
• Help your kids find activities that include appropriate touch, such as soccer, basketball, marital arts, and other sports. Even if they don’t want you to be touching them, they’re often open to others touching them. That’s why you can see a couple of kids suddenly start to wrestle at this age or a couple of girls styling each other’s hair.
If you have an older teen, between the ages of 16–18
• Teens at this age still may want their distance from their parents, but teens often like it when the same-sex parent (or an extended family member) touches them in some appropriate way. This could include a dad lightly punching his teenage son’s arm or a mom giving her daughter a hug.
• When your teenager is stressed, ask if your teenager would like a hand massage or a shoulder massage. Make your offer very specific (such as massaging the neck) so that kids don’t freak out that you want to touch them all over. Most kids enjoy a type of touch that relaxes their tense muscles, and you often can talk as you touch your teenager in this way. (Note: You don’t need to know how to do a proper massage. Just rubbing the shoulders and lightly kneading muscles is all you need to do.)
• Model appropriate touch with other family members who are open to your touch. If you have a younger child, touch him or her in the ways your child likes. If you have a partner, hold hands in front of the kids. The way you model touch also makes a big impact on kids.