This has been shared widely and is at least semi-viral. For what it’s worth, I’m a child psychologist and former school district administrator.
I have concerns. I’m assuming Ms. Sanchez is a real person, is good-hearted, and means well. I’m accusing her of nothing nefarious. But I’d hate for this message to get put out as a good practice for educators or for other adults, for that matter.
I would advise my educator friends to consider the liability and openness to accusations of sexual misconduct that an extended hug between an educator and a middle-school student could bring. Once a practice of extended hugs is popularized, you won’t have to look long to find an educator who thinks it’s a good practice with high school students. Then you’ll have 23-year-old educators and 17-year-old students engaging in one-minute hugs with the 17-year-olds’ heads on the 23-year-old teachers’ shoulders. If you don’t find the idea of an extended hug creepy in the case of a 10-year-old, how about a 17-year-old? If the former doesn’t seem creepy, and the latter does, when does the creepiness factor come in for you? 11-years-old? 12? 14? 16?
But this is more than just risky for the educator. We’re now increasingly sensitive–or should be–to the matter of consent to physical contact. We’ve been seeing thoughtful commentary lately about not forcing children to hug adults. The obvious response to my concern about a possible lack of consent in this story is, “Hey, the educator asked the student if he wanted a hug.” I’d argue that there is no way to know if he really consented. Think about it. A middle school student is asked by an authority figure, an apparently nice adult, “do you want a hug?” Suppose he didn’t. He would have had to then say “No, I do not want a hug.” That is a tall order for a middle-school-age child. He would worry about hurting her feelings.
Look at his response to her offer. “I guess.” Not “Oh, yeah, thanks, that would be nice.” No, he said, “I guess.” Then she says “You have to commit for the whole minute.” Language is important, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. “You have to…” is coercive language. I think this whole exercise is a terrible idea, no matter how well-intentioned, but if someone is going to do this, wouldn’t you want an uncomfortable child to feel okay about breaking off the hug at any time HE or SHE chose?
Just think about the difference between a quick hug, a pat on the back, and a word of reassurance–and a hug that goes on for a full minute. Try it sometime with a consenting adult and see what kinds of feelings you imagine MIGHT develop in a middle-school child during an extended hug.
If your reaction to my criticism is that I’m turning something innocent into something creepy, consider that you might be naive. I suspect that most of the time when adults get accused of improper conduct, it’s because SOME degree of improper conduct has happened. But I also think it’s possible that innocent, well-intentioned conduct sometimes gets people in trouble or, in this case, puts a young person in a bind that doesn’t allow the young person to set a boundary THEY might want to have in place.