Mary Gordon Interview

Human Touch Is Food For a Baby

Twenty years ago, Mary Gordon established Roots of Empathy, a Toronto-based in-school program that seeks to foster positive social behaviour and prevent aggression or bullying among students. We asked her about the program and the impact of human touch.


The Idea of the Program

Mary, the core idea of the program is that parents bring their baby to an elementary school class, where the children get to read the baby’s emotions. What role does touch play in the interaction with the children and the baby in the classroom?

Touch plays a pivotal role in the Roots of Empathy classroom—initially, through the attachment and relationship or the loving relationship between the parent and the baby. We explain to the children that babies can’t communicate with words; they communicate with touch, sound, and body language. And the children come to understand how crucial touch is for a baby to thrive, that babies who aren't cuddled, rocked and patted are constantly hungry for human connection. Human touch is actually food for a baby! And the children realize that the secure or happy relationship between the parent and the baby is most readily realized through touch, and that parents talk to babies as they touch them. Touch is the language of connection, and with little children in the classroom it’s also important that they touch the baby. So, when they sing to the baby in the circle around the green blanket, the children touch the baby’s toes or the baby’s feet and legs—every child has a chance to touch the baby. Touch is the first human connection. And what we know from scientists is that this touch increases the hormone oxytocin, and that the children feel happier, more relaxed, with a sense of solidarity.
“We all have a right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’—that’s all we’re saying.”

The Role of the Baby

The existence of a program like Roots of Empathy very likely points to the problem that a significant portion of children may not have the chance to grow up in a social context of empathy and “positive touch.” How do you secure the integrity of touch for the baby, the mother, the father, the teacher and the students in your program?

It is very important that we do things that empower children to appreciate respect for their own bodies and respect the distance of others. Here’s an example of how we do it. We ask the baby if we might pick them up, and then the instructor asks the little children: “What do you think the baby is telling me?” The children have to read the baby’s cues to understand if the baby is saying “yes” or “no.” And—very often—we set this up on purpose, and then, after the instructor says: “Well, you’re telling me that the baby is saying 'no'? In that case, I won’t pick the baby up. Let’s see what happens when mommy or daddy asks the baby.“ Of course, then the baby is enthusiastic, and the children see the huge difference in the response from the baby. We all have a right to say “yes” or "no"—that's all we’re saying.
“I deeply believe that touch is the most human connection that we can have.”

The Role of Children

Overall, what role do you think touch plays in children's development? You talked about the babies, but how is it for the children that you have in your classroom?

In terms of children’s brain development and their emotional development, we think our connections to feeling loved, safe and secure are generally delivered by touch. If you go back to very early childhood, we remember cuddles, being rocked, being carried. When a child is well-loved, their hands are held, they are hugged, they have a sense of family, sitting all together, and there is a sense of connection to touch. If you think about the primacy of touch in infancy above all the other senses, touch is paramount in our ability to thrive. With her research on premature infants, Tiffany Field (a professor of pediatrics, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine and the Director of the Touch Research Institute) was able to observe phenomenal developmental growth and weight gain in infants simply by making sure a loving hand came through the incubator and stroked the little baby. I think touch transcends age, generation, culture and language. It is a universal language, and I deeply believe that touch is the most human connection that we can have.

The Breakthrough of a Little Boy

There are probably many moving stories of touch out of the Roots of Empathy classroom, but do you have a favourite one that you want to share?

Going way back, probably 1998 or 1999, there was this little fellow in a second grade class. He was in foster care and a very aggressive child. The school had had Roots of Empathy classes the year before, and the teacher called me up and said: “Mary, I am so disappointed, but I can’t have Roots of Empathy this year, because I have a very violent little boy who bites, spits, and kicks for no reason. I don’t feel I could be responsible for the safety of a baby in the classroom.” So I spoke to the mother, who we already had in place. I told her that the classroom teacher was worried about the safety of her baby. She asked me if all the children would miss the chance to have the program, because of this one child. Despite all my concerns about the safety of her baby, she replied: “Don’t worry, I’ll bring my husband. He will sit one side of me and the baby and the instructor will be on the other side.” On the third visit, the mother invited this little boy to sit right next to her and the baby. And this little boy had never smiled, right? The baby flipped his leg over onto the leg of the little boy, who had come back from gym class. All the kids were in their shorts, and the little baby’s skin touched his skin. And then he turned to the baby and gave his very first smile. The classroom teacher said that it was the power of that touch, of that little leg on his leg that did it. I mean, maybe it’s not the power of touch, but everybody seemed to think that it was. I think it was. And it was the little boy’s breakthrough.
Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon

Founder and president of Roots of Empathy in Toronto

Mary Gordon is an internationally recognized, award-winning social entrepreneur, educator and author who has created programs informing about the power of empathy. Ms. Gordon’s mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. Her book Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child is available in multiple languages.