Battle in Print: Every child matters – so don’t touch!

Heather Piper, 29 September 2006

The image of the abused child – now almost universally understood to be the sexually abused child – is today an integral element of the iconography of Anglophone culture. Few new plays, novels or film scripts lack an act of abuse (Baxter 1997). These fictional acts serve as explanatory devices in the narratives in which they occur: characters act as they do because they in turn were ‘abused’. Estimates of the actual occurrence of child abuse vary considerably, but some claims are shockingly high – one in four, for instance. If this figure should be correct, the corollary is that there are a very large number of adults who prey on children. An industry exists to detect and prevent abuse by this apparent army of paedophiles, and in most Anglophone countries anyone who works with children is required to obtain police clearance – as if all paedophiles come with a criminal record handily attached. Various measures are also proposed to track and identify sex offenders, so that the communities in which they live know that they have a monster among them. Children are ‘taught’ at school to defend themselves against abuse, via ‘educational’ programs, with messages such as: ‘If it doesn’t feel right, you can say no’ (Scott 2006). The belief in the existence of numerous sexual predators has shaped legislation and social attitudes, even attitudes of adults to their own motivation and probity (Piper & Smith 2003). Yet others claim that 80 per cent of child abusers are biological parents (UNICEF), and if we add step-parents to this figure, this leaves a relatively small percentage of abuse that can be attributed either to the ‘stranger’, or to professionals.

The sexually abused child is presented as the ultimate innocent victim. Children are understood to be without sexual desire. Contact between an adult and a child must then be an act of exploitation. Fables of child abuse are tales of exploitation of the innocent, celestially pure, and essentially powerless. The abused child and the abuser have become models of how persons now relate to each other. The paradox of the obsession with children as actual or potential victims of sexual predation is that they become sexualised in a way they previously were not. Endless public iterations of anxiety over the sexual harm supposedly inflicted on many minors, and the florid reporting of ‘international rings’ trading in child sexual pornography, have turned children into objects of forbidden sexual desire. The repeated pairing of the image of the child with the image of the sexual victim has made many anxious about their own feelings and impulses, how others will perceive their actions, and even whether their own children or those in their care will ‘turn them in’ for fictional offences. It’s a bit like the injunction: ‘Don’t think about the bear!’ Once made, it is hard to think of anything else. Repeated stories about children as objects of lust create mental associations that set in train a whole range of fears and unease that would not otherwise have existed.

I can feel though, with…my step daughter of 12, a definite hesitation and suspicion of myself that’s very much an implanted awareness…Potentially more serious though is a feeling that this implanted awareness alerts any proclivity I have towards ‘the taboo’; that it might awaken otherwise nonexistent desires. It feels like this awareness acts like a carrier of an ‘infection’ to abuse… (email correspondent)

This generalised distrust of motives towards children has meant that even the utterly blameless accept they should submit to police investigation before they can be allowed near young people. A manifestation of this scenario relates to the fears adults experience in relation to the touching of children. A concern with child-orientated arenas becoming ‘no touch’ zones resulted in an ESRC funded UK project in this area (Piper et al 2006). The research aimed to clarify the issues concerning adult-child touching in education and childcare settings so as to enhance understanding. After an initial survey which provided varied exemplars of touching ‘guidelines’, six case studies were selected for the focus of the research, which comprised children and young people aged 0-19.

In brief, practice was found to be confused, contradictory, based on staff protection not child protection, contrary to known best practice regarding child development, increasingly contested, and typically beyond anything required by legislation. Many claimed, for example, that their no touching practices and policies were ‘because of the Children Act’. But the legislation is unanimous that the welfare of the child must be of paramount concern, and nowhere is there any ban limiting physical contact between children and non-family carers. Yet once interpreted in the form of standards, problems arise that are then further exacerbated by interpretation during inspection processes. Ofsted inspectors, quality assurance officers, and child protection inspectors, interpret policy in a variety of ways, informing those responsible for managing child-oriented settings of the need for internal policies, only to then in some cases use such ‘policy’ and guidelines as weapons against those who wrote them. The key justification for guidelines and protocols appears to have come from the Child Protection section of the National Care Standards, which states: ‘It is important that staff avoid putting themselves in a situation that may lead to allegations being made against them’ (see also Lindon 2004). Whether this (staff protection) standard initiated current concern or is a consequence of it ceases to be important. It has been translated in practice as requiring that there should always be two people present in any intimate care situation; men should have cushions on their knee when comforting a small child; parents should be notified if a young child requires toileting, and so on. Those who behave in less defensive ways (or ‘naturally’ as it was once referred to) feel they breach legislation and advice.

Although the main focus of the research was teachers’ and carers’ reluctance to touch children, a similar pattern was identified in a wider group of adults (step-parents, family friends, ‘other’ children’s parents), as was concern with a much broader group of behaviours (eg looking ‘funny’ at girls, texting teenagers, talking to unrelated young children in playgrounds). Respondents were fearful of being regarded as physically or sexually abusive; behaved as though they did not trust themselves; had to prove to others (and vice versa) their lack of any malevolent intent; did not trust others (adults and children) to judge their actions as innocent and appropriate; and did not trust children (and sometimes adults) to refrain from false or malicious allegations. Yet all accepted that touch was essential to children, especially the very young. While guidelines may be appropriate when a consistent approach is essential, confident professionals should be capable of such negotiation on the basis of their training and experience. In most everyday contexts, guidelines are negative not positive; products of fear rather than a characteristic of a confident profession or workforce. Any attempt to legislate for what will/will not count as ‘appropriate’ conduct undercuts the interpretive procedures that people use to ‘read off’ morals and intentions from behaviour.

Policing touch and other behaviours disables professional (or even human) judgement and efficacy. Behaviours need to be understood in the context of relationships. Professional activity should be based on a sophisticated judgement of motive and context, guided partly by ‘good sense’. Yet these are missing from policy and guidelines. Over-scripted protocols have led to defensive professional reactions, whereby central aspects of relationships, trust, responsibility, and individual discretion are overridden by considerations of ‘risk’. We need a different sense of professionalism, based on trust and agency, to counter the risk of incremental erosion of caring interaction between adults and children, so every child can matter, along with every adult, and so vicars who spontaneously kiss the cheek of a child with joy at their success, do not subsequently feel ashamed and a need to resign.

2084 – A Cautionary Tale

Following concern at the simultaneous trends towards childhood anorexia and obesity, parents and professionals have developed uncertainty about best practice in nourishing children. The situation is exacerbated by reports of some parents deliberately harming their children by tampering with food intake, and a number of school cooks have been prosecuted by parents (and subsequently fired by their employers) for allowing children in their charge to become too fat, or too thin or (and in extreme cases) physically sick. As a result, a number of responses have been instigated. Mutual inspections of food cupboards and cooking practices by neighbouring parents (‘child nourishment circles’) have become the norm. Nurseries and schools refuse to provide any form of food or drink for children, for fear of prosecution in an increasingly compensation and litigation-aware society. Those who continue to provide nourishment do so only when provided with guidelines and when covered by substantial insurance – a luxury many cannot afford. Only risk-assessed head teachers can release the seals on water taps at the start of each day, and are subject to frequent unannounced inspections. Lunch boxes can only be brought into school if packed, sealed and validated by a parent or guardian, following checking by the ‘child nourishment circle’. A few worried workers insist on giving morsels of food to children weak with hunger, but do so in fear for their jobs – meanwhile, children fend for themselves becoming increasingly obese or anorexic, and along with the rest of the population, suffer from an assortment of mental health-related illnesses.


Heather Piper is a senior research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a contributor to ‘Parents, Professionals and Paranoia – the touching of children in a culture of fear’, Journal of Social Work


[1] Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Children Act 2004: Every Child Matters. London, HMSO


Baxter, C. (1997). Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, Minn, Graywolf Press.

Furedi, F. (2001). Paranoid Parenting. London, Allen Lane.

Lindon, J. (2004). ‘Is it alright to cuddle? Supporting young development and good practice in child protection’. Early Years Educator.

Piper, H. & H. Smith (2003). ‘Touch in educational and child care settings: dilemmas and responses’. British Educational Research Journal 29(6): 879-894.

Piper, H, I. Stronach & M. MacLure (2006). Touchlines: The problematics of touching between professionals and children. ESRC - RES-000-22-0815.

Pratt, J. (2005). ‘Child sexual abuse: purity and danger in an age of anxiety’. Crime, Law & Social Change 43: 263-287.

Scott, C.L. (2003). ‘Ethics and knowledge in the contemporary university’. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 6(4): 93-107.

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