Boundaries of Touch: Parenting and Adult-Child Intimacy

Halley, Jean O'Malley
University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL
9780252032127 (pb)

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Cover of book It is safe to say that Jean O'Malley Halley's book on the complex social matter of bodily relationships between parents and children is extremely fresh reading, and, as such, it is exceptional in many ways.

The central topic of the book is the author's critique of mainstream cultural ideologies behind human behaviour. These cultural ideologies are, according to the author, the most important generator of understanding and the main perpetuator of specific agency between parents and children, more exactly child rearing, as a physical relationship between parents and children. These rearing ideologies are powerful, for they 'replicate a dualistic framework in western thought and culture. They tend to enforce an either/or rather than a more inclusive both/and orientation' (p. 3). This rigid exclusive dualistic framework does not permit parents to perform good parenting, for from one of its exclusive standpoints the parents are always wrong. And as a negative consequence, public focus on a debate over how to rear children (to touch or not to touch) unfortunately diverts public attention away from more serious problems such as for example women's struggle against poverty and violence in the family.

Quite some proportion of the book is devoted to careful and thorough analysis of the different scientific strategies proposed by most eminent child rearing experts from the end of the 19th century through the second half of the 20th century, starting with Luther Emmett Holt, proceeding with John B. Watson and finishing with Benjamin Spock, Alfred C. Kinsey, and Harry F. Harlow. Along with the rise of experts, we are witnessing the decline of the roles of mothers.

Before the 1940s, the so-called anti-touching period, the experts generally advised that parents should avoid touching their children as much as possible. In the middle of the 1950s, the emergence of the child rearing theory of Benjamin Spock and establishment of La Leche League International represented the winds of change.

Two forms of bodily relationship between parents and children have always been the most 'problematic' to the rearing experts and thus have always needed to be thoroughly discussed: breastfeeding and bed sharing. There were, and still are, two different theoretical (and also empirical) reciprocal exclusive approaches: some of the experts find touching dangerous for the child's psychical development, while some believe that touching is unavoidable for the child's good healthy development.

Some experts favour artificial feeding, believing that natural breastfeeding spoils children and makes them too emotional and dependent on their mothers. Others oppose artificial feeding on the basis that breastfeeding is natural. Mothers, they further explain, have a sort of natural intuition that makes them perfect for taking care for their children in comparison to fathers.

A parallel long-running debate is whether children should share a bed with their parents. One reason against bed sharing is a supposed correlation with sudden infant death syndrome, and another is fear of incest and child sexual abuse. Here O'Malley Halley compares two experts: Richard Forber, who opposes sharing a bed with children, and William Sears, a pro-sharing and pro-touching expert.

The book also addresses a third form of tactile relationship between parents and children: violent touch. O'Malley Halley contradicts radical feminist theory, which claims that the only version of touch is violent touch. Unfortunately, says O'Malley Halley, this radical feminist perspective, that the body is bad and touching is dangerous, is the feminist thinking most familiar to conservatives.

O'Malley Halley's book is certainly an extraordinary achievement; however, I must deliver one critical comment. Focusing on unveiling the ideology behind human tactile relationships between parents and their children is by all means necessary and important for analysing modern society's fear of inappropriate touch. Yet, perhaps it would be interesting and instructive to know more about the real behaviour of parents, especially because the latent assumption of the book is that this behaviour is strongly affected by this ideology. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have an impression that the main reason the author occasionally mentions her life experience simply derives from the lack of certain empirical data, which would support the author's conviction about the strong connection between parents' agency and ideology.

Tomaž Krpic
University of Ljubljana