06/08/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 08/08/2012 05:12 EDT

The Problem With Bumper-Sticker Wisdom: "No Loving, No Shoving"

Recently, a Brampton, Ontario public school took several students to task for their behaviour. The school had a rule: "No loving, no shoving." The young women who were disciplined had engaged in a now popular middle-school pastime -- hugging. While earlier generations may see a hug as an intimate act, many school-aged people now see a hug as a greeting, a sort of very large handshake.

The school board says it maintains no rule against hugging, and that the "no loving, no shoving" rule's purpose is to keep students from causing one another harm or from touching one another in unwelcome ways. But it appears that we still need to be concerned about the difficulty some teachers and administrators seem to have in distinguishing between transmitting bumper-sticker wisdom and teaching students to think critically.

Should we be teaching young people to be sensitive to one another? Should they learn that there is a difference between welcome and unwelcome touching? Or should we skip all that and revisit the days when "zero-tolerance policies" were instituted in order to make everyone's lives easier?

While we are concerned that there are teachers who have or may assault the children in their care, do we really want to prevent kindergarten teachers from picking up a child who has fallen? This is how the absolute rule against touching is understood in a number of schools.

Indeed, teacher candidates are cautioned against ANY physical contact with children, no matter the reason. The concerns about misinterpretation of touch and of liability are not trivial, but consider this story: Many years ago, a colleague of mine was speaking to a group of teachers. He asked them whether they thought there should be an absolute prohibition on teachers performing body cavity searches. Needless to say, the teachers agreed this measure was required. They were horrified at the very thought of such a search.

Then he asked them what a responsible teacher should do if a young child puts marbles in his mouth and begins to choke on them. Most of the teachers said that the teacher should quickly remove the marbles from the child's mouth and perform various life-saving maneuvers. "How do you get the marbles out of the child's mouth?" he asked. On reflection, most of the teachers agreed that it would technically require a body cavity search.

So the question remains: Do we need an absolute prohibition against teachers performing body cavity searches? If you answer "Yes" because you believe reasonable exceptions will always be made to save a child's life, you are putting a great deal of trust in teachers to have enough discretion to appropriately disobey authority. If you say that the prohibition is too broad and vague, you are thinking like a civil libertarian.

Do we need to make sure that adults in schools know they may not touch children in intimate places in inappropriate ways? Certainly we do. Do we need to provide exceptions for those who must assist very young or disabled students with toileting needs? Yes, we need to do this as well.

Now back to the huggers. No one is disputing the need to keep children safe and to discourage them from assaulting or inappropriately touching one another. But if we think that a slogan like "no shoving, no loving" will work, we are sadly off the mark. It will be wrongly interpreted to mean both that any contact short of a shove is okay, and also that no demonstration of affection is acceptable. Is this what we want our children to learn?

Let's leave the bumper stickers on the backs of cars and get our educational authorities to come up with rational ways to teach our children how to live compatibly in our diverse and complex communities. Hug-in anyone?