Why Your Child Protection Policy Should Permit Physical Contact

I touched on this briefly when I linked to the piece about physical contact in the church, but I thought it was worth expanding on. Occasionally you hear about child protection policies that blanket ban all physical contact between leaders and under-18’s. I’m sure there are youth work contexts where this is the correct decision, but I honestly can’t think of any. There are two reasons why allowing physical touch is a good thing.

First; physical touch is a generally welcomed by people for a reason. Humans like contact. I can’t do the job of explaining this than the article than inspired this; so read that if you haven’t and come back. To miss out on this because someone could use touch as an abuse or because we’re afraid of being falsely accused is excessive.

Second; banning physical touch outright is unenforceable. Inevitably you’ll have to touch a child at some point. Maybe you’ll have to pick up a crying child, or a young person will go in for a high-five, or you’ll be playing basketball with them and they’ll push into you. And either you write up every single case and tell off your staff for doing it or your just ignore it as an allowable exception. But then the rules are a bit nebulous. You can’t touch a young person. Ever. Except in some ill-defined situations we give you a pass.

What’s a better solution than an outright banning? Have a sensible policy on physical contact. Ours reads something like this; “All physical contact should be thought through. It should always be in public, appropriate to the young person and setting, and with a clear beneficial purpose.” Here are some examples of how that works;

  • You’re in a youth club setting and a young person comes in, you shake their hand. This is public; presumably there are other youth workers and young people in the youth club and other people can walk in. This is appropriate; welcoming someone with a handshake is a normal thing to do, even at a youth club. This has a clear purpose; by shaking their hand you’re deliberating showing them that they’re welcome and you’re treating them as an equal.
  • You’re helping in a creche and a toddler falls over, bruises their knee, and starts crying. You pick them up and give them a hug. This is public; assuming you have other leaders like you need to. This is appropriate; picking up a crying toddler and physically comforting when they’ve bashed their knee is appropriate. This has a clear purpose; by doing this you’re hoping to calm them down and deal with their pain.
  • You’re playing football with your young people, one of them deliberately tackles you badly so next time they are near you you shove them over. This is public; you’re on a football pitch with other people. This is appropriate; clearly not. This is of benefit to the young person; I know some people reckon giving a taste of your own medicine is a valid pedagogical approach, these people are wrong. So no. It’s not of benefit to the young person. This fails the checks. Don’t do this.

Just to be really clear we have a couple of other lines too, things like “physical contact should never be used while discipling a child”, “physical contact should never be able to be misconstrued as violent or sexual”, and “extra care should always be taken when you are the one to initiate contact”.

More than allowing you on the fly to work out whether physical touch is appropriate, these three categories allow us to look at activities ahead of time and decide what level of physical contact is appropriate. So you’re planning on taking young people swimming and while the pool is obviously public, and it may give the young person great joy to allow them to fight other young people on your shoulders and so give them benefit, you decide it’s not appropriate given the context. So before you go, you’ve established that sitting on shoulder water-wrestling is not going to happen. Or with smaller children they’re changing and while it may be a public changing room with other staff, and it might be appropriate to give them a hand getting dressed, if the children are old enough to do it themselves then there is no benefit to them, so you decide in advance not to do it unless they get stuck in their t-shirt. You can even write this stuff up to give you an extra level of security if something does goes wrong. Yes, it’s more work, but it allows you to work better with your young people and children. And that’s the aim. You want to love and care and work with the children you have as best as you can. That means you’re going to have to use physical contact. And so you should, safely and sensibly.