Reading the cues about making contact


To touch or not to touch someone else's child: Many adults seem less certain of the rules of casual affection than ever before.

"The first guideline is to know your own feelings. I would urge people to follow their instincts about touching other people's children," says Vermont psychologist Jules Older, an authority on touch who has instructed thousands of health-care professionals about the uses of touch.

"Let's say that someone 2 1/2 times your size and weight came over and patted you on the head, how would you feel?" asks psychologist and author Larry Kutner.

"How comfortable I should feel in embracing a child has to do with a whole range of things," says Mr. Kutner. "It has to do with my culture, with my relationship with the child and with the parent, and with what the parent and child and I feel comfortable with."

Everyone has the right not to be touched, Dr. Older says. And everyone has met kids who don't want to be touched.

"If you want to touch the kid and the kid wants you to touch him but the parents are uncomfortable with it, then you should go along with the parents' wishes," Dr. Older says.

"As touchers, Americans are a nice mixture. Two things have helped us away from the straight English model: The ethnic diversity with Cubans and Jews and Greeks and other cultures who are much touchier than our original forebears -- and the 1960s. Touch became much more accessible to us through the influence of the hippies."

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