Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Hugging Monster

A rap video circulating where a Christian Youth Group promotes the “Christian Side-Hug” – as opposed to the “sinful” regular front hug – inspired some thoughts on hugging, and the fear of hugging, in our culture. You can view the video at

For many years my mom taught elementary school in the San Fernando Valley. As a teenager, I became my mom’s principal audience as she held forth nightly on the administrative policies and priorities that made it so difficult for her to do her job.

One night, my mom came home and announced that teachers had been told not to hug students. One can understand why a school might generate such a policy: a genuine desire to protect students from inappropriate touch, fueled in part by a crippling fear of lawsuits. My mom, however, is an experienced mother of two, whose students at the time were little 5-year-olds who still wet their pants and cried on the first day of kindergarten. And my mom was a hardworking teacher who cared for and nurtured her students. How not to hug and comfort a scared child who’s skinned his knee on the playground? How not to hug and congratulate a young student who’s done a good job with a new skill? To my mom, this policy was another example of the district’s bungling attempts to address a real problem.

We should talk about this problem. As someone who screens mentors for a living, the specter of child molestation looms large in my mind. However. To what extent does stigmatizing healthy, affirmative touch protect our kids or even address the issue?

To me, if we need to rely on rules like “no hugging” to assure ourselves that no one is acting inappropriately, we’ve completely abandoned the kind of trust, community, and mutual accountability which actually keep our youth safe and healthy. (When I do hear from our youth about instances of past abuse, it is almost invariably people close to them who have committed these crimes, too often in environments of neglect, mistrust, or little supervision. No amount of rules or screening will keep our kids safe in the absence of real community and adult accountability.)

In our mentoring programs, we have a culture of hugging. Our youth adore hugs; they love nonjudgmental, affirmative contact. They have often learned that they need to act sexual to get attention, which leads to all sorts of risky teenage behavior. When they come to mentoring, they get hugs if they want them – just for being themselves.

In our community, hugging is an act of affirmation rather than a risk to be mitigated. We create an environment of respect for everyone’s needs. We teach mentors to (gasp!) exercise sensitivity and good judgment when approaching mentees, and to let kids take the lead in initiating contact. We teach a technique called the “side hug” – you can probably picture what this looks like – which is friendly and less full-on than a regular hug.

Which brings me back to my inspiration for this, the rap video circulating on the “Christian Side-Hug.” I am all about the side-hug. I think side hugs are great! I’ll side-hug youth I don’t know too well, and I usually prefer to get a side-hug from men I don’t know too well either. I think everyone should know how to side-hug. But does this make front-hugs “sinful?” Or is this another instance of mistrust for ourselves, our youth, and our collective capacity to care for each other? I’ll leave that one up to you.


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