Written by Janet Webber, Published by The Globe and Mail

April 23, 2018

The Ticklish Power of Touch

'Criss-cross, applesauce, spiders crawling up your back, cool breeze, tight squeeze, now you've got the shiveries!" My five-year-old son and I play this childhood back-tickle game as a cherished part of his bedtime routine.

I usually recite the rhyme and perform the hand motions, but a few nights ago Jacob offered to do "criss-cross applesauce" on my back. I laughed at the strange combination of sensations, from goose bumps to tickles, tension to relaxation, all ending with a little shudder. I had come down with a case of the "shiveries" and my son was very pleased with himself. We moved on to story time having enjoyed a wonderful moment of touch together.

My own family wasn't particularly touchy-feely. Once I was old enough to be trusted to not run out into traffic, handholding became a thing of the past.

In North America, we are extremely uncomfortable with touch, and it appears to be considered improper and laden with implicit meanings, motives, sexual innuendo and power dynamics. We must ask permission before giving someone a hug. We are acutely conscious of how and when we touch or are touched, as we fear sending any wrong messages and are terrified of offending each other. George Howe Colt (in Life magazine) described us as belonging to a "non-tactile society," as North Americans touch each other less through the course of a day than people do in most other cultures.

I lived in Seoul, Korea, for a while when I was in my twenties, and experienced my first touch-culture shock. Everybody in Seoul holds each other's hands or arms, regardless of gender or their relationship. It didn't seem to matter if they were lovers, family, friends or strangers: they were comfortable touching each other and lots of positive touch seemed to be the most normal thing in the world.

This comfort with touch extended into everyone's daily life in wonderful ways. Family and strangers alike helped the elderly and children on and off public transportation and, when hiking, there was always a hand outstretched to help on a challenging part of a trail. In the public spas, people would scrub each other's backs even if it was the first time they had met.

This comfort with touch seemed extremely foreign to me at the time, but one day at a spa, I found myself scrubbing my friend's back as though I did that sort of thing every day. Touch was contagious, and even though it went against my North American principles, something about it seemed to intuitively feel good.

It wasn't until I became a mother, however, that I had my second culture shock about touch, and became a reformed touch-phobic. I am now much more likely to touch others and be comfortable being touched than ever before.

One only needs to spend time with a baby, or toddler, to appreciate how touch is essential for their health and development. Children touch everything; touch is one of their primary sources of learning as they discover and interact in their new world. My parenting experience has taught me that the most effective way to comfort a child is through touch: by holding, rocking or massaging them. I now understand that touch is both a psychological and physical event as kisses can magically take away all kinds of pain, both from the body and the mind. I learned that handholding is as much about being safe as it is about feeling safe.

My five-year-old still amazes me with his need for touch; not only the need to touch things but also people. There are days when it can be overwhelming, but I am secretly terrified of the day when my mommy-hugs and kisses will no longer be welcome. I'm not sure whether I can stop the North American customs about touch from having an impact on our little family, but as I believe that engaging in touch contributes to a healthy state of being, I am going to encourage positive touch with my child for as long as he'll let me.

As I rub my son's back at night to help him settle, we both relax as we enjoy our moment of connection -- and I often fall asleep beside him. So much is happening in that moment of touch: comfort, safety, and love. When I consider the power of touch, what amazes me most is that touch positively affects both of us. It is not only the person being touched who receives the positive benefits, the payoffs also extend to the person doing the touching.

As we get older, our need for touch does not diminish, as touch is fundamental to our well-being. Regardless of whether or not we are experiencing pain, most of us love the thought of a back massage and we all still need reassuring hugs or hand squeezes. If we can make the connection between touch and its immense benefits for children, then perhaps we can begin to appreciate that, as adults, engaging in touch in positive and respectful ways with other people (and even pets) is a rewarding behaviour.

Let's start to promote and maintain our health in the simplest of ways, let's start by touching each other more.

Contributed and published to The Globe and Mail in 2006, and updated April 23, 2018