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On-Site Staff / Partnerships and Building Relationships / Staff Leadership and Management

Hugs are Free Today but Tomorrow they’re a Dollar


Over the last few years, I have become known as “the lady who loves hugs.”

When I visit any of our campuses, the kids come running ready for a hug, while others sit back and wait for me to approach them. Regardless if they run or wait, almost every single kid extends out their arms awaiting the embrace. For 13 years, I have wholeheartedly embraced the belief that we must hug our kids.

I know that there are all sorts of arguments out there for why we should not show physical affection to our students and the risks we face in doing so, but after many years of consideration of the matter, I have come to determine that the benefits far outweigh the risk and therefore hug not only all of our scholars, but also their parents and their siblings, and for that matter, our entire staff! I have even coined little phrases, such as “hugs are free today, but tomorrow they will cost you a dollar,” hence inviting even the shyest one for a free hug.

We all need to feel that connection, it is one of the first steps in reshaping the conversation of creating a healthy culture for our future generations.

So why is it important to hug our young people?

Well research shows that hugging reduces stress, helps us feel safe and supported, reduces anxiety, increases self-esteem, etc. However, in my experience, it also creates a culture of respect and regard, strengthens human connection, and creates an environment of trust and support. A few years back, Time Magazine did a story on “The Problem with ‘No Hug’ Policies.” ]

The article addressed how we have spent so much time over the last 30 plus years, focusing on “bad touch/good touch” and focused so heavily on the negative actions of a few, that we have failed to realize the consequences of creating environments where no touch is the only option.

So let’s pair now the challenge of creating physical distance from those whom we work with paired with what they carry from their other environments. Working with high-risk populations youth are often exposed at very early ages to mistrust, and come to be very skeptical of anyone that comes forward trying to help them.

Who can blame them? They have most often been disappointed or hurt by multiple people in their lives, including those in their homes, teachers, community members, and those who give them a sideway glance as they walk home from the library or nearby park. They are labeled as worthless, failures, or often worse. So when they walk into our doors, they are emotionally and psychologically worn from the weight of the labels they carry on their back, they are seeking someone to help reassure them, let them know they are valued, that they are cared for, and most importantly that they are safe. I urge you to think of a time when you were lost, in pain, or felt like the world had beaten you down, you may recall that the need for human touch was elevated, the need to be held and to be comforted is powerful.

We need human contact, both in times of joy and times of sorrow.

We need to feel supported and nurtured. Without it we find new ways of coping with this absence, many of which are unhealthy and often dangerous.

Hug Youth

So still not comfortable hugging your kids… it is okay!

There are plenty of other ways to create that safe and supportive environment, using alternative approaches. A few of my colleagues use a fist bump with the kids or the infamous side hug. Even a warm pat on the back demonstrates a connection. Others use verbal communication to remind the kids daily that they care about them and are important to them – please note this is not in the adult to child lecture format, but simply words of encouragement and affirmation.

One of my colleagues has his own handshake he created and uses with the kids, sort of a secret handshake.

I continue on with the hugs… at our family events, I stand at the front door and hug every person who comes through. I spend three hours walking around our field trips hugging every kid I see. I often have parents that seek me out at events, simply for a hug. Human contact changes the conversation; it opens a level of trust between two people, and creates civility in the conversation that follows. We all need to feel that connection, it is one of the first steps in reshaping the conversation of creating a healthy culture for our future generations.

As I drive through many of our neighborhoods and see kids hanging on the streets, I often wonder who loves that child, who hugs that child, who tells that child that they are amazing and will someday do something great. As a society we continue to sit back and watch our world deteriorate into senseless and repeated violence, anger, and hatred.

I am not an emotional person. I am not amused by pictures of cute puppies, or cheesy inspirational poems about love, but I can’t help but think, if we cared a little more, if we could recreate a culture where affection and human contact were at the center, maybe just maybe we wouldn’t have to fight so hard to save so many lives.

For breakfast I eat the same thing every morning after my morning workout – 2 chocolate peanut butter protein shakes (that’s right 2 of them!)… I lift in the morning and have to eat all the calories I burned within 45 minutes of my workout! For anyone who is interested, here is my recipe for each serving:

1 banana
2 scoops of EAS Lean Protein Powder Chocolate Fudge
1 C unsweetened almond milk
2 Tbsp of PB2
6 ice cubes

Author Profile: @annemarieg

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