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The War on Hugs

by Matthew Levinson - April 01, 2009

This commentary is about the tension schools face in dealing with student affection in the form of hugs.

“I thought school was a fun-loving place,” a student asked me the other day, “Why can’t we hug?” He seemed genuinely puzzled. “Teachers have been yelling at us, whenever we get close to each other.” The problem is pervasive. Not a day passes when I do not have a teacher come in to my office to report a PDA transgression. The last thing I want to do is wage a war on hugs, but I am caught in a quandary. Should schools allow public displays of affection (PDA)?

Time Magazine, in a recent issue (Fitzpatrick, 2009), calls out hugs as the new handshakes. For this generation of students, greetings come in the form of full body engagement. It can be boy-girl, boy-boy, girl-girl. Rarely, though, do these hugs have the butt-out, hug your grandma look. Instead, these student hugs squeeze the lines of propriety and take on the “I need to go back to the 50s school dance and get out the ruler to measure the distance between these two tweens.” Educators today are waging a time-honored battle with the younger generation. This is not a new conversation.

I have written letters to parents, asking that their children refrain from excessive hugging on campus. This is awkward, to say the least, and finding the right language to express the school’s desire for appropriate physical boundaries is difficult. Here is an excerpt from one letter:

Several teachers have expressed concern regarding the physical closeness that [your child] demonstrates on campus and I wanted to bring this to your attention. It is important that [your child] keep appropriate physical boundaries at school. There has been concern regarding how close [your child] is with other students in a physical manner in between classes, by the lockers, at lunch and at the dance. We want [your child] to continue to maintain close relationships, but just to be more mindful of [your child’s] surroundings at school and avoid overly intimate physical interactions.

And, how do parents respond?

We are in complete agreement with you on this and have our concerns as well. Over the weekend, we've had several conversations with [our child] and feel that he understands what is expected of him. Please continue to monitor and let us know, as well as letting [our child] know, of any perceived inappropriate behavior. We are mindful that this puts more on the Staff for which we are thankful.

Much to the chagrin of students, parents and school are on the same page. Can’t a kid get any love around here? That is exactly what one eloquent student asked. Here are his concerns:

[A teacher] has been recently cracking down hard on people caught hugging in school. Now I don't know why she is suddenly so, for lack of better a better word, evil towards hugging, however I know that I and many of my peers are disgusted by this abysmal discrimination towards those who like a good hug. As a student council representative, and quite a hug-lover myself, I am requesting that the privilege, nay, the right to hug be given back to the students, for every hug-less day at school is a dismal one, one without hope, without life, and without friendship. Normally, I would have chosen to simply override this rule, however [teacher’s] sharp tone and raised voice combined with her refusal to explain herself struck fear in my bones, so I felt that a quiet email to the proper authorities was the right way to go.

In this litigious age of harassment suits, though, it is a tricky spot to be in for a school. The question of when simple affection crosses the line and makes another student feel uncomfortable and violated depends on each individual student. Some schools have issued blanket bans on hugging and affection, much to the dismay of the American Civil Liberties Union. In a Time Magazine, article, Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU said: "Preventing harassment and teaching kids to respect each other is important, but having yet another reason for kids' behavior to be criminalized in unnecessary. It's draconian to ban all forms of touch" (Gray, 2007). As schools tread what can be treacherous waters, teachers are often left to swim alone in the crosscurrents. From hair braiding, to tickling, to consoling a friend caught in a sad moment in need of affection, the lines are blurry and schools do need to clarify the boundaries for teachers and students. These are not easy conversations, but faculty and students need to engage in the dialogue.  

Instead of balking at the opportunity to embrace conversation about this thorny issue, one skillful Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) teacher, as part of the puberty education unit, broached the topic of affection with the students. They watched part of a DVD, "Flirting or Hurting," which helps children distinguish between flirting and offensive behavior. The video frames several vignettes for students to better see the line between harmless and harmful situations. In the teacher's words:

I believe this is an important topic to introduce to students in middle school. I believe that students need to be aware that certain language, behaviors, and gestures can make others feel unsafe, embarrassed, or threatened and which fall under the category of harassment. I also believe that it is important that students have the tools to respond to these situations safely and constructively.

To extend the conversation even more, the teacher asked students to write anonymously on cards any inappropriate language and behaviors that they had seen or experienced. She then put students into small groups to place the cards (re-typed to protect anonymity) on a continuum of risk/appropriateness. Another SEL teacher role-played different hugging scenarios that play out in a variety of contexts, from family gatherings with older relatives, to school dances, to same-sex affection. This is exactly the kind of careful, thoughtful approach that schools need to take to facilitate, and not shut down, conversation about hugs and affection.

There are no easy answers for schools or for students. Even though adults enter the hug debate through the prism of emotional and physical safety, students rightly want to know why affection for their peers can be construed as aberrant behavior. It is such a fine line and schools would be remiss to pass up opportunities for dialogue among students, teachers and parents. Otherwise, the battle lines are drawn and the war on hugs will continue.


Fitzpatrick, L. (2009). Are hugs the new handshakes? Time Magazine. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1879201,00.html

Gray, S. (2007). Where students can't hug. Time Magazine. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1683668,00.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 01, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15603, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:04:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Matthew Levinson
    The Nueva School
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    MATTHEW LEVINSON is Head of the Middle School at The Nueva School.
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