Without Hugs, What Else Have We Lost?

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Kids need hugs and comfort to form healthy attachments in life and a sense of security to explore. It’s especially true when kids are distressed or frightened or when they’re separated from mom, dad, the primary caregiver, or a secure environment. In the 1930s, John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, made this observation while treating emotionally disturbed children who had been separated from their mothers. His studies formed the bases of an Attachment Theory (1958) that suggests “a child has a universal need to seek close proximity to a primary caregiver.” Subsequent studies by other theorists verified Bowlby’s observations; and in 1958, psychologist Harry Harlow released a study illustrating Bowlby’s observation in a controversial “Wire Monkey” experiment.

Harry Harlow observed that infant rhesus monkeys preferred the terry cloth covered surrogate, especially when distressed or afraid.
Harry Harlow observed that infant rhesus monkeys preferred to hug the terry cloth covered surrogate, especially when distressed or afraid.

In the study, Harlow separated eight infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth and placed them in wire cages with two different surrogate wire monkeys. One surrogate, made of wire, provided milk; the other surrogate, covered in a soft terry cloth towel, provided comfort without milk. Harlow observed that in every case, the infant monkeys preferred to hug the terry cloth covered surrogate and went to the wire monkey only to feed. This was especially true when the infant monkeys were frightened or distressed. It was the terry cloth covered surrogate that provided comfort, alleviated the infant monkey’s fear, and actually gave them courage to explore their surroundings.

Jump forward sixty plus years. Times have really changed. Many school districts have included a no hugs policy in teacher and employee handbooks. Some have even instituted a “no touch” rule for students aimed at curbing the bullying and pervasive sexual harassment claims infecting schools, even elementary schools.

Affection expressed by children, even at a preschool level, are being misconstrued as sexual by adults. Instead of reciprocating these innocent gestures of love, childcare professionals are treating it as sexual and inappropriate. It’s a twisted message. For example,  in Waco, Texas, a teacher aide filed a complaint against a four year old who spontaneously gave her a hug. In her complaints, she claimed that the child touched her and snuggled in inappropriate ways and rubbed his face against her chest.  The child was given an in-school suspension and the complaint is in his permanent school record. Sadly, this hysteria has infected many summer and overnight camps too.

Unfortunately, summer camps aren’t immune to this hysteria. A parent are increasingly nervous that every adult has the potential to be a sexual predator, camp directors and counselors included. This perspective has diminished the carefree nature of some camps experience. Camp counselors and administrative staff, in addition to rigorous counselor training, are sensitized to affection, what constitutes innocuous touching and what could be perceived by some parents as inappropriate. A comforting hug is prohibited and touching, even between campers is forbidden. At Boy Scout Camps, Scout Leader manuals forbid Leaders from touching scouts save for an occasional pat on the back or teaching an instructional method to a camper. Additionally, campers aren’t permitted to touch each other and boy scouts who roughhouse could be dismissed by the Boy Scouts. The hysteria is so out of whack that State of Maryland health officials require campers to bring in a signed permission slip so they can bring sunscreen with to camp (just in case a counselor or fellow camper decides to help with the application. It’s a shame.

In a recent interview, Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s: Hanging In, Holding On and Letting Go of Your Teen Child shared his impressions. He said that summer camp is where many campers make some of their closest, life-long friendships. As a former camp parent, he described the fond memories his own children still have and the close life-long friendships they’ve maintained with former counselors. Because of this hysteria, summer campers ultimately lose out. Camp is where children can form emotionally intimate friendships, where they can feel affectionate and secure, and where they can take positive risks knowing the camp environment is a safe environment.

And, it’s not just sad. It’s potentially harmful to the emotional state of a distressed child. Seymour Levine, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, observed that when infant rats or monkeys were separated from their mothers, secretion levels of adrenaline increased from the pituitary-adrenal system. Also present in humans, adrenaline is responsible for the fight/flight reaction during periods of stress or danger and is a survival mechanism. Dr. Levine noticed, that physical contact, especially from the infant’s mother, lowered the stress response. He theorized that in humans, touch helped to reduce the stress hormones such as adrenaline and was soothing to the infant. Even more profound was a study by Dr. Schanberg and Dr. Field that suggested that touch, rather than nearness could affect an infants’ growth rate. Some camp directors are bucking the hysteria thankfully.

According to Carleton Kendrick, some experienced camp directors who’ve been in the child development business for decades, are willing to push back on overly nervous parents. While counselors are still trained to recognize differences between appropriate and inappropriate touch and how to administer hugs to a distressed child, (Kneel so that your eyes, not your groin, are on eye level with the camper), it’s refreshing to know that some camps are willing to push back on a trend that could harm normal emotional attachments in countless children and future adults.

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Author: Merle Huerta

Merle Huerta is a staff writer with Kars4Kids.org, a teacher, tutor, a retired army wife, and a mother of a blended family of 13.

One thought on “Without Hugs, What Else Have We Lost?”

  1. Hello Merle! Touch has become a very sensitive subject, and as you point out well, has resulted in mis-management of children’s emotional needs. Even adults for that matter! I especially like the reference to the Rhesus monkeys study where the baby monkeys had more courage to explore their environment after having a period of clinging to the terry-cloth mother substitute. How interesting that they just needed the felt experience of having something larger than them to hold on to, and that provided them courage to explore. I also find it interesting that in this study, the food did not need to come from the terry-cloth mother who they went to comfort for. Gives me much food for thought in how this translates into what I see with attachment-disorder children!

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