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The Importance of Touch

Kiwi culture is a low-touch culture, according to the experts. But touch is vital for the wellbeing of young children. Brendon Smith didn’t need much convincing.

Eva Scherer + Brendon Smith at 'Toddlers Day Out'

Eva Scherer + Brendon Smith at 'Toddlers Day Out'

Manning the Father & Child stall at the recent Toddlers Day Out in Waitakere, I was drawn to the stall of massage therapist Eva Scherer. We got to talk, and she told me that she has been in NZ for over ten years.

She has seen how we have a low touch culture, from remote farm upbringings or male stereotypes. I had already heard, with a grimace, how rugby thrived in early NZ, partly as body contact was otherwise rare.

So when Eva was telling me how kiwi fathers now are reluctant to touch their own children, let alone any others, I could relate.

She does admit exceptions, Eva noted that she often sees Kiwi Dads all over their kids, especially at pools and beaches. However, her belief is that too many kiwi children feel disconnected, partly at least because they don’t get enough touch, hug or massage.

Eva Scherer is the creator of the Child Connection organisation, a massage therapist and teacher.

Her touch programmes have been presented in Australia and Poland and her Children Massaging Children (CMC) programme won a Community Award for Excellence in 2004.

From her upbringing, in Poland, she had learned of how touch deprivation could be bad for children, emphasising that in Poland, people were touch informed and she had never contemplated the sort of situation she sees here in NZ, where many are touch deprived.

Her main mission is for all children’s right to closeness and belonging – an essential and basic factor for their life, health and wellbeing.

This is also known as “secure attachment” and is largely created by touch and other sensory stimulation during childhood.

Eva Scherer had heard about Father and Child’s involvement with teenage fathers and was keen to offer her assistance. She told me how in a recent workshop with many teenagers, they all walked in wearing their slouches, baggies and made little eye contact.

Once she closed the door, she asked them to pair off and one of each pair to lie down. As the ‘well of yearning’ opened up, she said their eyes lit up. After a simple, supervised massage they were all beaming with big smiles all around when they left.

Her Child Connection programmes start with ‘Discovery’ – for children aged 1-5 years, then ‘Children Massaging Children’ (CMC) – for ages 5 -12 years and ‘Safe Touch – Healthy Touch’ – for adolescents aged 12 – 16 years.

All her programmes are based on the same principles, using touch/massage processes and games to drive proper brain and nervous system development. Eva says this is important in creating emotionally and socially mature adults, who make better parents.

She quotes from eminent doctors about how the structure of the brain is genetic, but it develops by adapting to sensory, emotional and later abstract symbolic ‘experiences’.

During infancy and all through life, we need a multitude of interactive experiences to enable our complete development. The interactive stimulation and pleasure derived, help us to recognise the benefits of good decisions, and good options should cause pleasure.

Movement is said to be as crucial as nutrition, while touch, especially during infancy, is so important that this is a big factor in breast feeding, which along with all it’s maternal bonding benefits, is recommended for up to 2 ½ years by UN conventions.

Studies on blind children have shown that they develop normally if they have plenty of body contact and movement stimulation. Premature babies gained weight and were discharged quicker in a swinging bassinet then if only on a mattress.

It was claimed that some animals would rather have touch or feel fur than eat, while some can die or suffer brain damage from complete isolation, but the use of a surrogate mother who moves and touches can repair many such cases.

Expert Michael Mendizza says, ‘I prefer the term sensory deprivation to neglect or abuse. Abuse and neglect produce images of a wounded psyche, transient feelings that are easily dismissed. Sensory deprivation is more concrete – starvation, malnutrition, torture.

Are parents and the adult culture meeting nature’s long term expectations at each age and stage of a child’s development or not? That is the basic question.’

He likens the absence of critical stimulation to a bombardment of emotional junk food.

A Formula One race car team leader claimed that since the 1980s, when 2D computer screens replaced many young children’s back yards as play zones, kids with 3D problem solving or full spectrum cognitive and symbolic imaginations have been hard to find.

This is the far end of a spectrum, but it is understandable that stimulation is important, and touch via playing, occasional hugs or focused massage invokes all sorts of good feelings.

Not that Eva Scherer is the first to know this. In new age 1970’s rural areas, as well as cities, many social workers and counsellors recognised a need for touch and massage in treatment for mental issues.

Practitioners of Reiki, Shiatsu and Swedish massage were arriving in New Zealand, many actively engaged with doctors and health initiatives.

Eva’s vision is, however, one of the latest to be backed by recent research, through a project at Ebbett Park Primary School in Hawkes Bay by Jill Morgan. In May 2006 Jill researched the effects of the Children Massaging Children (CMC) programme on 140 pupils over a 17 week period. A control school was used in the study.

The following findings were made:

  • Improved relationship with their peers
  • Improved ability to do school work
  • Improved relationship with their father
  • Improved physical ability

Since 1997 Eva has been promoting and practicing her therapy in shopping malls, at accredited schools and in her therapeutic Massage clinics.

Eva hopes her programmes will grow on a national and international scale, helping to prevent child abuse, depression, suicide and violence, building healthier families and hopefully societies.

I know that whenever I lie down in front of my TV, arch my back like my physiotherapist has told me to, my children like to climb on top of me.

I have trained them, as they have grown, to kneel slowly up and down each side of my spine, squeeze my shoulders hard and knuckle my neck. The only reward they get is a massage for them, by me, and they love it.

So it seems, you can have all the junk food or TV in the world, but with touch, you get love.

Next: A Day in the Life of a Dad

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