Dennis Eisner is a young man employed as a staff member at a Sherman Oaks child care center. The children are playing in the exercise yard when a little girl runs up to him and asks joyfully, "Tickle me!" He thinks about it for a moment and tells her "no."
Ellen Enochs is a veteran Westside teacher now employed at two nursery schools. She has found a new instructional technique: When she wants to compliment a child, she no longer adds a pat on the shoulder. Instead, she enthusiastically tells the girl or boy, "Give yourself a pat on the back" and illustrates by tapping her own shoulder with a palm.
An Eagle Rock father is in bed with his wife when their 5-year-old daughter comes to the door. She's had a nightmare, and she's scared. She wants to crawl into bed with them. The father makes a point of asking her to crawl in on mom's side. He's concerned about what the girl might say at her preschool or to "outsiders who would not understand."
These vignettes point up society's new-found concern with child sexual abuse and how it is changing traditional relationships between adults and children.
A surprising number of adults--worried that an innocent gesture of affection, friendship or courtesy might be misread as a sexual overture--are pulling back from youngsters, according to dozens of interviews with day-care workers, teachers, parents and child development specialists.
In many small but telling ways, grown-ups are increasingly on guard. The most cautious of them now regard a young child, once a sexually neutral object, as a walking time bomb: a potential accuser, steeped in public service advertisements and educational films that urge him or her to be wary of strangers, to report anything suspicious, to say "It's my body," to say "No!"
As a result of this atmosphere, some children appear to be receiving fewer affectionate "nurturing" touches than they used to get in day care centers, elementary school classes and youth groups.
Most psychologists regard the phenomenon as temporary, and it is far from universal. Southern California appears to be particularly affected because of ripples from the heavily publicized case of the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach.
Nevertheless, the change disturbs many people involved with child development because it clashes so directly with a decades-long consensus that an atmosphere of physical affection is critical to a child's psychological growth.
Adult standoffishness is "the one clear, short-term loss" in the war against sexual abuse of children, said Dr. Michael Durfee, a child psychiatrist who coordinates the Los Angeles County Health Department's child abuse prevention program.
Afraid to Hug
"People now, including grandparents, are afraid to hug and love a child," complained Patricia Hansen, president of the state PTA's 10th District, which includes most of Los Angeles. "My husband and I recently became grandparents for the seventh time, and he told me, 'I'm afraid to go up and love 'em.' This has got to stop," she said.
"Things that are common sense have gotten confused with sexual abuse," said Dr. Edward Weiss, a Washington, D.C., child psychiatrist who frequently testifies in child custody cases involving allegations of molestation.
Added Lory Freeman, an Oregon author whose book "It's My Body" counsels children on how to avoid molesters, "I think a lot of people are misinterpreting . . . and holding back. It has made me feel sad." Freeman says that "to help keep things in perspective," her next children's book will be about "touching as a basic need, putting it in the same category as warmth and food."
Several similar attempts have been made in Los Angeles:
Hansen's PTA group this month published a child abuse pamphlet that, in contrast to much similar literature, began by stressing "the importance of affection throughout the developmental process. All children should receive adequate cuddling, kissing, hugging and closeness."
Explained co-author Clara Rosenthal, the group's director of parent and family-life education, "We didn't want to scare parents off from nurturing."
Asked to contribute to a recent county interagency report on child abuse and neglect, psychiatrist Durfee contributed an essay titled, "Keep On Touching." It warned that a drop in affection would make children more susceptible to molestation. "They're more apt to get hungry for it and to accept molestation blindly," Durfee said in an interview.
Shayla Lever, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's child abuse office, routinely urges teachers to avoid becoming "an emotional refrigerator to the kids" in an effort to protect themselves from being falsely accused.