Winning the war on hugs

A recent ‘hugging ban’ in a primary school in WA has triggered quite a response across Australia. Many people are despairing about yet another punitive action taken that challenges what many feel is a normal part of childhood.

The principal has argued that the school needed to take such a strong stand because some students had hugged too hard, and had caused other students distress.

My worry is that this might be a golden opportunity lost – children need guidance and coaching on how to behave appropriately with other children. This is why I write about building emotional and social competence, not just focusing on cognitive competence.

In terms of protective behaviour, this is also a golden opportunity lost. What a perfect time to have conversations with parents, teachers and students about what makes for ‘safe touch’.

Undoubtedly some children come from environments where there is confusion about what constitutes safe touch. I hated being touched as a child because my prior experiences of touch from my abusive alcoholic mother had been painful and so I was frightened that all touch would cause more pain.

This is our job as caring adults – to educate our children about the difference between safe and unsafe or unwelcome touch. To ban hugging negates our primary needs – to feel we belong, that we are accepted and that others care about us.

Safe touch builds connectedness, encourages more caring behaviours, changes moods, soothes stress, builds a culture of kindness and compassion, and makes us all feel happier.

I struggle with the ‘touch phobia’ we have in Australia. I know how powerful safe touch is in homes, child care services and classrooms. This decision sends a negative, sad message to those who care for children.

So many teachers and carers have emailed me or messaged me very concerned that safe touch especially to soothe stressed, disconnected, unhappy or frightened children is now being damned and shamed.

We simply cannot let this happen. Soothing children helps them avoid building poor stress-regulating systems that can lead to anxiety and mental health problems.

Appropriate, welcome hugging needs to be encouraged within the excellent protective behaviours guidelines. It certainly does not need to be given a blanket ban even if the adults concerned felt this would stop children making some poor choices.

They need adults to teach and guide them so they can learn how to be loving, caring, kind and compassionate.

My final concern is for this 12-year-old girl who was given detention for hugging. I have many, many parents who tell me that students who inflict pain from bullying, over many occasions frequently go without any sanctions, not even detention. How confusing are the mixed messages our children get in the school environment as we see this splashed across the headlines? Are we to read into this that hugging is as dangerous or more dangerous than bullying?

Many suicidal adolescents tell me they are disillusioned by our uncaring, nasty world and this type of knee-jerk reaction will only increase this disillusionment.

As the Hal David and Burt Bacharach song goes:

What the world needs now, is love sweet love.

I think we as parents, educators, aunts, uncles and good citizens need to make sure we speak about this issue in our own communities and schools to ensure that we win this war on hugs.