Who Would Have Thought There Could Be a Dilemma Around Hugging?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsThis past weekend I did a little mindless channel surfing, not expecting to be inspired by this week’s blog by a rerun of Boston Legal, but that is exactly what happened.

Boston Legal aired from 2004-2008 and while categorized as a comedy, often took on challenging legal situations and provided interesting twists to what can happen in a courtroom.

What caught my attention was a case in which a teacher had violated a school’s “No Hugging” policy because she saw one of her students was distraught over receiving a poor grade on a test. Apparently, she had violated this policy on a few other occasions as well.

The teacher’s almost overwhelmingly compassionate response to students’ distress had led to her disobeying school policy once again; so, she was being fired.

Much attention in this dramatic depiction of what might happen in a courtroom focused on the moral and legal struggles around maintaining rules and policies.

Is it reasonable for a teacher to make the decision to ignore a policy because she felt compelled to meet the child’s need to be comforted? The school—and eventually the judge—agreed that the No Hugging policy had been created to protect students from being harmed by adults who could abuse them under the guise of offering comfort through physical contact. She lost her case.

Anxiety over comforting a child.

Over the years, when working with early childhood educators and teachers in K-12 classes, many have expressed anxiety and concern when deciding to hug a child in order to offer comfort, in an effort to meet the emotional needs of the child. There seems to be much more leeway in early childhood centers with regard to allowing and even encouraging hugging.

But as soon as children are in elementary school, and especially in middle and high school, teachers and other school staff become leery. They either have to adhere to the mandatory No Hugging policies or are reticent to put their arms around a distressed child for fear of possible accusations of lascivious motivations and the possibility of lawsuits.

Some of these teachers felt that the schools created these policies because it would be easier to avoid potential lawsuits. To them, it seemed the schools were unwilling to consider creating standards and policies that maintained children’s safety while still allowing teachers and other staff to hug students.

A father with his hand on his son's shoulder.I found myself contrasting all this with several posts on my newsfeed that popped up on my Facebook last week. These newsfeeds had studies that suggest hugging and cuddling babies actually changes their DNA in positive ways for years to come.

In the outstanding 1970s classic by Ashley Montague, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin and the 2015 book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden, the authors highlight the positive power of human touch. There is science behind it!

Consider how many adults regularly schedule massages because of their power to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Human beings need and in fact crave human touch. If babies benefit greatly from being cuddled and hugged and adults do as well, surely children and teenagers need to receive these benefits as well.

These conflicting concepts create a kind of conundrum for schools, educators, parents, and caregivers.

If hugging has so many physical, genetic, emotional and relational benefits, and we restrict physical contact between staff and students in schools, are we doing a major disservice to children who would benefit greatly from being physically touched in a non-sexual way? Of course, no child should ever be forced into receiving a hug (or touch) without the adult gaining permission beforehand.

A picture of Dr. Bruce PerryI received a wonderful lesson many years ago about touching children from one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Perry. I watched him interact with a young child who he knew quite well. They were meeting for the first time in a few weeks and even though this boy had a very warm relationship with Dr. Perry, I watched how Perry did not encroach on the child’s space, but rather very gently extended his hand in the gesture inviting a fist bump.

The child happily extended his closed fist and bumped it against Dr. Perry’s. I noted later on in their meeting that this child snuggled up to Perry, at which point Perry felt comfortable putting his arm around him.

Dr. Perry later told me that he is extremely careful about intruding on a child’s personal space, respecting what he calls the Intimacy Barrier, especially when a child has known traumatic experiences. It seems to me like this is a wonderful general policy for us all to adhere to, regardless of whether a child has a history of trauma, something often not known by adults.

I think this subject is worthy of some discussions.

It is worthy, too, of consideration for school guidelines that could provide ways for children to experience healthy human touch from adults around them. This could allow children to experience the comfort a gentle hug often provides and the benefits that science shows are quite powerful.

Meanwhile, parents and caregivers can make sure they hug their children frequently.

It’s important both to verbally and nonverbally share love, support and desire to offer comfort when children are distressed or feeling lonely. Hugging is a universal language of connection

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Do you have any childhood memories of being gently hugged by the adults in your life? What messages were communicated through these hugs? How significant were they to you?
  2. Do you think there might be some ways to creatively provide permission for adults outside the family, such as teachers and other school staff, to hug children when they are distressed or in need of some human connection? What do the guidelines need to be? How could such hugging be allowed while still protecting children from possible abuse?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute