– Paula Bryman, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker
An Illinois 8th-grader is making national news because she received detention after hugging one of her friends in a school hallway. She says it was just an innocent hug goodbye; the school says it was inappropriate physical contact. Are schools protecting our kids or overreacting?
In school hallways, cafeterias and parking lots, students are hugging, kissing and more. Students say they often see public displays of affection.
“I think it’s kind of weird in the middle of the hall. Like get a room, you know?” says Meredith, 15.
However, many students have no problem with it.
“Hugging in between classes, it’s not really a big deal,” says Carla, 16.
“It’s not doing anyone any harm really, I don’t think,” says Jesse, 16.
The problem is, not everyone agrees on what’s harmless and what isn’t.
“You have somebody holding hands and touching inappropriate body parts as they’re walking down the hall. Is that going to offend somebody else? Is that going to make them late for class? Is that going to make them focused on their boyfriend and not their academics?” says Paula Bryman, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker.
To avoid controversy, most schools enforce the rule of no public displays of affection — period. An innocent kiss with your boyfriend is unacceptable, as Polly found out.
“I’ve gotten in trouble before when teachers told me to cut it out in the hallway or something like that,” says Polly, 17.
Teenagers are exposed to more sexual content than ever in the media, and many don’t agree with the school rules against public displays of affection.
“That’s really none of their business,” says Polly.
“If I got suspended for hugging my girlfriend, that would be ridiculous,” says Andrew, 15.
“Is it silly? Maybe. But you know what? When I go to work I have to follow rules, and I don’t like all my rules. This is sort of part of growing up,” says Bryman.
Bryman adds that parents should help their children understand.
“It’s your job to walk into that building and be focused on learning, not focused on your boyfriend. Once school is out, get your homework done and then you can focus on the boyfriend,” says Bryman.
Tips for Parents
- While it is important to talk with children about sex and sexuality, parents are often unsure of how to begin such open communication. Connect with Kids offers DVDs to help start the conversation in a non-threatening manner.
- Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation offer these tips for having a positive conversation with your child about sexual relationships and where, how and why to draw limits:
- Explore your own attitudes – Studies show that children who feel they can talk with their parents about sex are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens than children who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject. Explore your own feelings about sex. If you are uncomfortable with the subject, watch DVDs, read books and/or discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, relative, physician or clergy member. The more you examine the subject, the more confident you’ll feel discussing it.
- Start early – Teaching your child about sex demands a gentle, continuous flow of information that should begin as early as possible. As your child grows, you can continue his or her education by gradually adding more information until he or she understands the subject well.
- Take the initiative – If your child hasn’t started asking questions about sex, look for a good opportunity to bring up subject.
- Talk about more than the “birds and the bees” – While children need to know the biological facts about sex, they also need to understand that sexual relationships involve caring, concern and responsibility. By discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship with your child, he or she will be better informed to make decisions later on and to resist peer pressure.
- Give accurate, age-appropriate information – Talk about sex in a way that fits the age and stage of your child.
- Communicate your values – It’s your responsibility to let your child know your values about sex. Although he or she may not adopt these values as he or she matures, at least your child will be aware of them as he or she struggles to figure out how he or she feels and wants to behave.
- Relax – Don’t worry about knowing all of the answers to your child’s questions. What you know is a lot less important than how you respond. Convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home.
- Teens who have high self-esteem and self-respect make more responsible health choices. As a parent, you can help your teen develop self-respect in the following ways: (American Medical Association, AMA)
- Allow your teen to voice opinions.
- Allow your teen to be involved in family decisions.
- Listen to your teen’s opinions and feelings.
- Help your teen set realistic goals.
- Show faith in your teen’s ability to reach those goals.
- Give unconditional love.
- Whether your child is thinking about having sex or engaging in other risky behaviors, you can take steps to help him or her make an informed decision. By following these tips from the AMA, your child will realize that you want to help:
- Allow your teen to describe the problem or situation – Ask how he or she feels about the problem. Ask questions that avoid “yes” or “no” responses. These usually begin with “how,” “why” or “what.” Really listen to what your teen is saying, instead of thinking about your response. Try to put yourself in your teen’s shoes to understand his or her thoughts.
- Talk with your teen about choices – Teens sometimes believe they don’t have choices. Help your teen to see alternatives.
- Help your teen to identify and compare the possible consequences of all of the choices – Ask your teen to consider how the results of the decision will affect his or her goals. Explain (without lecturing) the consequences of different choices.
- American Medical Association
- American Sociological Association
- Children Now