When is a touch too much? When is a hug too much?
We've heard answers from the media, parents, teachers, medical professionals and social workers.
But no one seems to have definitive guidelines. Seemingly, because all cases are different.
Child abuse is a wide-spread national problem, and school systems, teachers and doctors are taking the brunt of the heat.
Recently, a friend had an emergency, and asked me to pick up her little boy at the bus stop.
I went to the bus stop and the child got off the bus smiling at me. We hugged -- we are very good friends, and I told him his mom would be a little late. But the look the bus driver gave me, and the fact she questioned me -- as of course she has every right to do -- broke my heart. Did I look suspect? Could be. But didn't the driver know that if my little charge was hugging me everything was OK? No. She didn't know.
Suddenly I felt sorry for the driver and sorry for myself. It was then I realized how the delicate boundaries between children and adults have changed relationships. How today's mores have made us look closer at both the abused and the abuser. This problem is really "virtual morality."
Gone are the days when you talked to a child you didn't know. Yes, even in the check-out line. The evil, the deviant and the pervert have made it harder for parents to know who's good and who's bad.
Once hidden in a cocoon of trust and friendship, children now have to be ever-watchful. A stretched-out hand offering love or comfort could be alien or suspicious.
Three years ago, when I volunteered in a first-grade city school, I had a little girl who always wanted to hug me and sit on my lap. She always seemed needy. So I hugged her every day. I finally asked the teacher if it was OK, and she said: "Sure, unless it interferes with her schoolwork." But that was a few years ago, and rules are tighter now.
I talked to a friend who teaches in a parochial school, and asked her if she is allowed to hug or touch. "Yes," she said, "we still give hugs and kisses at our school, but then we are a small school and there is complete accord between parents and teachers."
With the new scare of abuse, no mother can be sure when her child is touched by a stranger.
And therein lies the sadness. Think what we've lost as a society -- that once-cozy rapport and spontaneity between you and a child who is not your own.
I wonder if children feel they are in a bell jar, where demonstrative love can not enter because it might be the wrong kind. An important ingredient has vanished from our everyday lives.
ABC's "20/20" recently aired a fine program, "Teach but Don't Touch." Teachers were interviewed -- teachers who had been accused of touching and molestation.
Teaching has always been a hands-on profession. Now due to allegations and indictments, and the actions of a few sickos, it's hands-off.
At one school, "20/20" reporter John Stossel said, nine girls and one boy alleged that the substitute teacher had fondled them. The teacher was proven innocent. There, apparently had been a student conspiracy that changed the teacher's life forever.
Stossel talked with a couple of teachers who had been wrongly accused. One was a music teacher who had been teaching 36 years. He is now exonerated and says he will still hug a music student if it is needed . . -- that it may be the child's only hug of the day.
"20/20" showed pictures of a teacher about to pat a child's shoulder as she waited in the bus line. Her hand drew away as she remembered: "Teach but don't touch."
Across the country, teachers are being told by lawyers how to act, how to react with children.
Stossel asked the question: "Hasn't it gone too far when, in the name of protecting kids, we end up making the world colder for them?"
But the other side of the coin cannot be dispelled. How tragic that this new problem weakens the ability of real abuse victims to be heard, understood and believed.
So the innocent pay for the deeds of the guilty, and that's the way it is. Teachers try to keep their distance as today's student may be an revenge-seeker. That is, if the student is mad about a low mark or bad test score.
The bell jar tightens around the child. And we lose another chunk of our humanity while a small child has lost her smile of greeting as she gets off the bus.
And the bell jar tightens over the teacher, too. How very sad.