Children need to know the limits of behavior adults expect

April 08, 2001|By Rebecca Faye Smith Galli

BRITTANY, 13, bounced into the kitchen after carpool, plopping on a chair.

"Mom, I've invited a bunch of friends to the Dance at the Grove," my daughter began. "What should we wear?" she asked, wide-eyed.

I searched for the instructions on the ticket to our church's first middle school dance. "`Please dress appropriately,' it says.""`Appropriately?' What does that mean exactly?" she asked. And the testing of limits began.

"Can I wear a halter-top? Can Glenna wear spaghetti straps? Kelly may want to wear her sister's tube top. Is that OK?" she rattled off.

After a quick phone call to those in the know, we defined our terms. "Appropriately," it seems, means different skirt lengths, sleeve options and shoe selections, depending on the school or the location of the dance. After confirming the specifics of this dance, phones buzzed and instant e-mail messages blared as Brittany relayed the rules, moving on to more important topics like who is going to be there.

Children look for limits. Boundaries give structure to their confusing world of mixed messages and complex choices. Being a kid is not easy. Sometimes kids lose their way.

A recent headline about a prominent upper school is a case in point: "Lacrosse Team Suspended." "Players said to view sex video tape made by one of them," it read. The specifics were unthinkable: A player had made a videotape of himself and a girl having sex that was later viewed by most of the team.

Although the sanctions were detailed in news reports, a note from the headmaster reached my home describing the on-campus actions for the off-campus incident. With a child in the lower school, I was pleased at both the swiftness and clarity of the headmaster's words. While condemning the incident and citing the sanctions, he also announced his intention to "work with our students to reinforce the principles that guide our school."

A boundary had been crossed, initial consequences prescribed. But now the more important task of working with the students was stated, a distinction that signaled a condemnation of the behavior, not the child.

"A river never runs deep until it finds its banks," said the late Harry Emerson Fosdick, renowned pastor-theologian and founder of New York City's Riverside Church.

Setting limits, drawing boundaries and securing those banks without branding the child with permanent repercussions is the delicate job of both parent and professional as we seek to teach our children how to live responsibly by making good choices.

"Because I said so" once was an acceptable way to set limits. Today, it is generally insufficient. Why? Perhaps we have more demanding children today. Or maybe they are more sophisticated at a much earlier age.

Now more than ever, we need to answer the "why" when we set limits. We need to give reasons to our children for the answers we give. For in today's world, we need to teach our children not only to listen to our answers but also to learn how to address the questions. If we can teach them the answers as well as the decision-making process behind the answers, what a feat we have accomplished.

Children need limits. They need to experience appropriate consequences for poor choices. Yet they also need tools to help them overcome their errors in judgment to equip them to live responsibly in the present as well as in the future.

Again, we must define our terms, "appropriately." We are challenged to create firm banks for deep living without drowning the child. We must strive to set timely limits with timeless lessons.

Rebecca Faye Smith Galli is a free-lance writer and columnist who lives in Phoenix, Md.

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