Do You Know The Importance of Hugging Children?

I find stories and historical research fascinating and very helpful in providing specific reasons for encouraging certain parenting behaviors, like hugging.

What happens when children are not hugged or held?

There is some dramatic information on the power and importance of holding, hugging and touch that I think readers might find as compelling as I did. Talk about a motivation for holding and hugging children!

In his seminal book Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, author Ashley Montagu [Harper and Row publishers, 1971] shares the following story:

During the 19th century more than half the infants in their first year of life regularly died from a disease called marasmus, a Greek word meaning ‘wasting away.The disease was also known as infantile atrophy or debility. As late as the second decade of the 20th century the death rate for infants under one year of age in various foundling institutions throughout the United States was nearly one hundred percent.  It was in 1915 the Dr. Henry Dwight Chapin, the distinguished New York pediatrician, in a report on children’s institutions in 10 different cities made the staggering disclosure that in all but one institution every infant under two years of age died. The various discussants of Dr. Chapin’s report, at the Philadelphia meeting of the American pediatric Society, fully corroborated his findings from their experience.

He describes another report of 200 infants admitted to various institutions in Baltimore in which 90% died within a year and that the 10% that survived… “did so apparently because they were taken from the institutions for short times and placed in care of foster parents or relatives.” This marked the beginning of the end of orphanages and foundling homes in favor of foster care systems, where the mortality rate significantly improved because children received the emotional care they needed.

An even more dramatic story:

In 1211, Frederick II, Emperor of Germany, in an attempt to discover the natural “language of God,” raised dozens of children in silence. Frederick wanted to find out what kind of speech children would have when they grew up if no one ever spoke to them. He allowed foster mothers and nurses to provide physical sustenance to the children, to bathe and wash them but in no way to interact with language or in any kind, tender or loving way. Frederick never found out what “God’s preferred language” is because it never emerged; the children never spoke any language and all ultimately died in childhood (van Cleve, 1972).

As part of the process of learning about the power of loving care, Montagu shares the following story:

It was, however, Dr. Fritz Talbot of Boston who brought the idea of ‘Tender, Loving Care, ’not in so many words but in practice, back with him from Germany, where he had visited before World War I. While in Germany, Dr. Talbot called at the Children’s Clinic in Dusseldorf, where he was shown over the wards by Dr. Arthur Schlossmann, the director. The wards were neat and tidy, but what piqued Dr. Talbot’s curiosity was the sight of a fat old woman who was carrying a very measly baby on her hip. ‘Who’s that?’ inquired Dr. Talbot. ‘Oh, that,’ replied Schlossmann, ‘is Old Anna. When we have done everything we can medically for a baby, and it is still not doing well, we turn it over to Old Anna, and she is always successful.”

Sometimes we can learn about what to do (through research on the destructive impact of parenting practices) that teach us what not to do. As sad as it is to think about the children in all of this research, it gives us remarkable insight about the importance of holding and hugging our children.

And if you were not hugged a lot as a child this may feel less natural to you. Because it is so critical to the developing physical and emotional health of your children, overriding any reluctance to hold and hug is worth the effort!

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. What are your memories and associations to being held? How might these impact how comfortable you are today with your own children?
  2. Does this information inspire you to pay more attention to finding or creating moments where you tenderly hold and hug your children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network