Kids’ hugs a casualty of our hypersensitive times

“Don’t hug the campers.” That was among a handful of things that my 16-year-old son, Nathaniel, was told when he volunteered this summer at our local YMCA. Oh, and also, “Don’t let any kids sit on your lap.”

He had signed up to help shepherd and supervise a gaggle of 7- and 8-year-olds from the swimming pool to the arts-and-crafts studio to the playground to the basketball court.

Since everyone knows that kids naturally like to give and get hugs, Nathaniel was presented the directive to refrain with a visual demonstration. The director of the camp showed him how, if a cute little tyke came running at him with arms wide open in expectation of a hug, he was to pivot so as to be standing sideways toward the camper, put his hand up and say, “High five!” The “high five,” the director explained, was the best way to avoid torso-to-torso contact without hurting the camper’s feelings.

Without anyone telling him, Nathaniel intuitively understood why this rule was being imposed. “It just made me kinda sad,” he said, “that this is what the world has come to: You can’t give a kid a hug.”

Researchers have found myriad benefits of hugging, including lowering blood pressure, helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness and decreasing stress. Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Moral Molecule,” has linked hugging to the release of oxytocin in the brain. And oxytocin, he says, is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

“By inhibiting hugs, you are inhibiting compassion and connection,” says Zak, who makes it a personal practice to give at least eight hugs a day. “It is the most natural thing in the world.”

And yet, because adults hugging children can be construed as creepy, no-hugging and no-touching policies now extend to schools, camps, sports leagues and community centers across the country. And even when there are no formal strictures in place, adults who work with kids often self-regulate because they are afraid of being sued — or, more to the point, falsely accused of child molestation.

“When I went to sleep-away camp as a kid, we hung out in our bunks, slept in each other’s beds, cuddled with our counselors; it was a more innocent time,” says Karen Goldberg, the director of youth and family programs at our local Y. “But times have changed. There are more lawsuits, more claims of sexual harassment and abuse. We have to be really careful.”

What is most confounding, perhaps, is that we have layered on all this caution even though our kids are no more in danger now than they ever were. As University of Texas historian Steven Mintz has pointed out, “the sexual abuse of minors is anything but a recent phenomenon.”

Mintz cites, in particular, Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 landmark study of female sexual behavior, in which he noted that a quarter of all girls under the age of 14 reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse — a rate, according to Mintz, that is similar to what is reported today.

There are two ways to look at this, of course: Either we are going overboard now, thanks to our litigious, hypersensitive, media-driven world. Or we should have been protecting our kids more all along.

I’m in the former camp myself. But even if you’re in the latter, it’s hard to argue with Nathaniel’s conclusion: It’s all just kinda sad.

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Randye Hoder wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. Jay Bookman’s column will return soon.