Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Do school hugging bans go too far? Add to ...

Fifteen-year-old Meagan Campbell likes to hug. A lot. "I consider myself a hugger. It's hi and goodbye. You'd feel like you'd been left hanging if you didn't get a hug."

At Citadel, her old high school in Halifax, hugs were administered at the start of the day in the locker room and again at the end. Girls are generally more demonstrative than boys, who passively accept a clinch. Hugs are generally reserved for close female friends.

More related to this story

"When you're in a group of people and you only want to hug a few of them, usually you just give a little one to the people in between."

While Citadel has more than 1,000 students, there are fewer students and therefore fewer hugs at St. John's-Ravencourt, the private school Meagan now attends in Winnipeg. (The school is small and students are seldom separated from one another.)

Teenage hugginess is epidemic, and (outside of Canada) schools have taken notice, with some in the United States and Britain banning all public displays of affection between students. Kids protest, especially since administrators offer murky rationales: that extended embraces are a gateway to make-outs and sex in the halls, or that they choke corridors and distract in class.

Only staid handshakes were spared at a small New England high school that outlawed all physical touching between students this month. News of the policy went viral after a 17-year-old student at the school complained anonymously to FreeRangeKids.com, a parenting website.

The girl hoped to protest the rule, which was intended to "thin out the kissing couples who clog up the halls," as she understood it. "Interpersonal touch is not inherently sexual, and to treat it as such is to make it so," she wrote in a petition, adding, "… micromanaging merely infantilizes us."

In an unfortunate turn of events, a student committed suicide at the school this week; the author suspended her petition because she did not want to attract any more publicity. Still, on the day news spread of the death, she wrote, "I noticed no attempts to police hugging today. Students and teachers alike were embracing openly." Such scenes play out all too often: Think school shootings, with victims clutching each other in the aftermath.

So why do school boards ban soothing, physical touch on regular days?"

We're just trying to quell the huge amount of distractions," Allison Couch told ABC News in March. The principal of Oregon's West Sylvan Middle School described girls running down hallways to hug, squealing all the way. "With the girls they would hug five or six or seven times between classes," she said.

For other administrators, the fear is sexual. "Schools have to draw the line and hugs are probably an easy place to draw the line at because if you don't draw the line there, where is the line going to be?" Utah's Chris Williams told the Standard Examiner. The Davis School District spokesman said there were exceptions to the PDA ban, including hugs after a winning basketball shot.

Other schools were more exacting: A Texas school ban stipulated holding hands, while another in Virginia expanded the prohibition to include high-fives.

Such sanctions are less common in Canada, where bullying and harassment policies are in place and other rules are made at a teacher's discretion. "It's political correctness gone mad," says Paul Bennett, an education consultant based in Halifax.

"One of the realities of teaching Grade 7 to Grade 12 is that you're continually confronted with raging hormones," he says. "You have to have a policy but the soft policies are far better - it's rarely put in writing."

As headmaster of Halifax Grammar School, Mr. Bennett routinely saw kids hugging through recess. "It didn't really bother the teachers because they accept it as part of the normal culture now," he said, adding that teachers drew the line at "outrageous displays of affection," including "lengthy kisses."

Lenore Skenazy, New York founder of FreeRangeKids.com, suggests administrators draw the line at "making out in the halls," if that's what they're concerned about. "That you go from a distraction to the draconian idea that all hugs or touching is bad, that's a leap."

"You deal with the behaviour that you're actually concerned about, rather than banning in a blanket way," says Annie Kidder, executive director of Ontario's People for Education advocacy group.

Meagan's father, Michael Ungar, a professor in the school of social work at Dalhousie University, says hugging is good for everyone involved as long as it's consensual and not accompanied by shrieking. "It's become a bit of a performance for the kids," says Dr. Ungar, who wrote We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

"It's no coincidence that kids in California and Ohio and little old Halifax and Toronto are doing the same things. It's a culture and becomes part of the way they interact, in the same way as I enter a business setting and I shake hands with people."

"Touch," he writes in his book, "teaches our children how to think about others. It brings them closer to cementing their connection with those who can make them feel like they matter."

Like the anonymous New England poster, students are fighting back. At Legacy Junior High School in Layton, Utah, last week, students donned "hugs not drugs" T-shirts, playing on the drug prevention campaign that advocated love as a magic cure for addiction. In East Mesa, Ariz., in 2008, students staged a 20-minute "hug-a-thon" after their junior high school forbade hugs lasting more than two seconds. And in Oregon, they protested on Facebook: "What a joke," one poster wrote. "Kids could be doing so much worse."

"When you put the kibosh on normal human interaction, you're pushing them into a corner," Ms. Skenazy says.

And they will outsmart you in the end. "It seems absolutely ludicrous to try [to]legislate these things or create policies. The kids will simply adapt with something else," Dr. Ungar says. "That's their job, to create some way out of the culture of adults. They have to get the upper hand somehow."



 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories