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Touchy subject Part 1

May 6, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
Readers: This is the first of a three-part (at least) series.

I'm reading a book called "Boundaries of Touch," which is subtitled "Parenting and Adult-Child Intimacy." If you're like me -- and probably most Americans -- the phrase "adult-child intimacy" makes you wince or at least gives you an uncomfortable feeling akin to stepping sock-footed in a puddle of water.

West Virginians are especially sensitive to the topic, being the constant butt of so many "all-in-the-family" jokes.

I wanted to read the book, however, because I'm a touchy-feely type of person, which makes me a touchy-feely type of mom (translation: hugs and snuggling are big on my list), and I wondered if this author, Jean O'Malley Halley (what a name!) had something to teach me about any boundaries in respect to my 2-year-old daughter. What I found was an interesting, if not a bit technical, discussion of two prevailing parenting theories.

Halley starts by talking about the society and times in which we live, a culture that is hypersensitive to touch between anyone. It's a litigious culture and one that has had more than its share of sexual harrassment and exploitation scandals. If your student comes crying to you because her parents had a huge fight that morning, don't give her a hug! Looking for a pat on the back from your boss? There's no such thing anymore.

And if someone brushes against you accidentally at the grocery store or mall, you may feel an instant twinge of violation. It's as if we're all lepers.

Once you have a child, the topic of appropriate and inappropriate touch explodes. You have sleep issues, holding issues, breastfeeding issues and more.

The sleep and holding questions are split between the two prevailing schools led by behaviorist Richard Ferber and naturalist Dr. William Sears. The first advocates the hands-off approach, letting babies "cry it out" to get to sleep in his or her own crib, and that holding a baby too much spoils him or her. The second is the polar opposite; it's all about touch, touting that co-sleeping (the "family bed") and wearing your baby leads to a more secure, independent child.

In the circles in which I move, the Sears method is strongly supported, while the Ferber philosophy is seen as cruel and unusual punishment. The more predominant way of thinking is the opposite, however -- the Ferber way is considered safer and more logical, encouraging independence of both the child and his or her mother. Both sides, of course, strongly believe they are right. And some moms are quick to judge those on "the dark side."

Halley sums up the sleeping debate like this:

"Albeit increasingly common, sharing sleep continues to raise concerns over what constitutes appropriate touch. In particular, anxieties about incest and child sexual abuse still arise again and again in today's mainstream child-rearing advice about sleep. Depending on one's perspective, Ferber's method is understood to be more 'boundaried,' leaving the whole family better rested and, thus, the parents better able to parent. For others, Ferber's method entails neglect of the child, and therefore, is tantamount to child abuse.

"Again, depending on one's beliefs, Sears's method is more loving and leads to a deeper connection wtih one's child, leaving the whole family better rested, and, thus, the parents better able to parent. Or for those on the other, Ferber, side of the debate, Sears's method borders on the incestuous and, therefore, is tantamount to child abuse."

To be continued tomorrow (May 7)


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