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Touch

Air Date: 10/05/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723, or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.If you've ever spent any time in an art museum, you can probably conjure up a mental image of a Madonna and child. The mother holds the infant against her breast in the curve of her arm; she gazes into the baby's eyes tenderly, often with just the hint of a smile. The baby nestles close against his mother's body, searching his mother's face. They are a unit, complete and content. That sort of tender, nurturing touch is a huge part of caring for an infant, and of course, mothers have a huge head start because they are the ones who nurse the baby. We know that babies who are touched gently and often develop more rapidly and are more likely to form a secure attachment with parents. Many parents study infant massage for exactly this reason. And in fact, when infants are deprived of touch, they may fail to thrive. Mothers who suffer from depression sometimes don't connect physically with their babies and we know that a baby's emotional and cognitive development can be impaired as a result. There's another group who sometimes struggle with touch, however. When was the last time you saw a painting of a father cuddling an infant? While many fathers enjoy holding a baby or hugging a toddler, they sometimes become less and less comfortable with touch as their child matures especially if that child is a son. Researchers have shown that moms prefer to relate to young children with gentle, nurturing touch, while dads usually feel more comfortable tickling, wrestling, and bouncing them. Both kinds of touch and play are valuable, by the way, and one isn't necessarily better than the other. In fact, babies may learn self-awareness and to regulate their own internal state when they're bounced by their dads: they learn to evaluate, "Is he mad?" "Is this fun?" and "Do I want him to stop or continue?" Some dads, though, are genuinely hesitant about touching a child in a loving way. They worry that someone will think it's wrong. Some dads worry that too much affection can make a boy "weak" or "too soft." In fact, boys, girls, and all of us need to be touched and touch often says far more than words ever could. One dad I know tells the story of being unable to stifle his four-year-old son's tantrum and, in sheer desperation, telling the sobbing boy, "I need a hug." His son was skeptical, but eventually was convinced to offer a hug to his dad and that was all it took to end the tantrum and open the door to problem-solving. Many studies have shown that when men are asked about their own fathers, they often wish that they could have had a closer, more openly affectionate relationship, even as they wonder how to create that sort of relationship with their own sons. As children grow up, they will let you know their preferences about touch and a child's should always be allowed to decide what kinds of touch feel comfortable. Some kids (and even teenagers) won't leave the house without a hug, while others seem to need their individual space. Most kids see their moms as the go-to parent when a hug is in order, but many have told me that they're less sure about Dad. Are fathers meant to be nurturers or disciplinarians? In my world, moms and dads can both nurture and provide kind, firm limits. In fact, the limits usually are more effective when affection is part of the process. Fathers sometimes didn't experience affectionate, gentle touch themselves growing up, so offering it to their own children can feel awkward even when there is a great deal of love and commitment there. As it turns out, there are many ways to offer healthy touch. You can offer a back-scratch as part of the bedtime routine, or a one-armed hug to say "I love you." Even kids who "don't want to talk about it" may feel comforted when you ruffle their hair as you walk by. No words are necessary. Many kids go through a "don't hug me" phase during adolescence, especially if their friends are around, but don't despair. They grow out of it, and if they've been raised with affection, they'll let you know when they welcome it again. By the way, touch can be a welcome gesture between adults, too. An unexpected hug can change an entire day for your partner. Yes, there is such a thing as "bad touch". But it isn't worth sacrificing all the good touches for. Take time to hug and enjoy your kids while you have them close by. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.