ANALYSIS: Limits -- A parental necessity from generation to generation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--After a disagreement between two groups of high school girls from an affluent neighborhood began causing confrontations whenever girls from the groups crossed paths at school, the assistant principal invited the mothers of the young women to meet with her to defuse the bickering that had grown from a neighborhood disagreement into a school disruption issue.

At the meeting, the mothers disclosed that the conflicts had begun sometime after 2 o'clock the previous Saturday morning when the girls were out on the street near their homes. When the administrator acted a bit surprised that the girls were out at that hour, a mother responded, "Oh, you don't understand; in our neighborhood, parents trust their kids and give them freedom."

The parents of that neighborhood, fortunately, were out of synch with the majority of American parents. A 1999 New York Times/CBS News poll of U.S. teenagers indicates that 87 percent of the teens interviewed live with parental curfews.

That same poll suggests that parents do not see themselves as powerless and irrelevant when their children become teens. Forty-five percent determine the kinds of movies the teens may see; 30 percent say how much a teen may watch television; 24 percent control how much time may be spent on the computer; 21 percent make decisions about the persons with whom a teen establishes a friendship.

Parenting experts and adults involved with youth in the ministry of the church agree that limits and boundaries are vital. In fact, parental involvement is just as important with teens as with younger children, noted Richard Udry, the principal investigator of the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health.

Each generation of parents of teens faces limits and boundaries issues which are a bit different from those faced by previous generations. Some of the more current limits issues include the following:

-- Money issues. A survey conducted in 1997 by researchers at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research has shown that teens, on average, have more than $100 in weekly allowances and other money. Teens from the highest income families receive an average of $175 a week while those whose family income averages between $20,000 and $30,000 receive an average of $19 a week from their parents.

Plentiful cash for teens is a new issue for many families; therefore, they have no role models to give them guidance as they make decisions about money and teens. Many of these families want to know how to set limits to teach responsibility when they can provide so much for their children.

Families with limited incomes, meanwhile, face limits issues related to money because of the prosperity of others. How does one determine the limits of family sacrifice for a teen? And beneath the surface issues related to money, Christian parents face a deeper issue of how to teach teens what is really valuable and how Christ wants his followers to relate to possessions.

-- The Web. Shortly before Christmas 1999, the newspapers and television news broadcasts were filled with one more problem related to Columbine High School when a student received a message over the Internet that caused school officials to close the school to protect students. This problem reflects the epitome of parental concern about the Web.

Other concerns related to the Web include exposure to pornography; time spent on surfing the Web instead of being involved with peers and family members; communications with persons whose identity may or may not be who they say they are; harassment by someone in a chat room; and the possibility of making purchases without parental permission, including the purchase of alcohol.

The top Internet sites reflect the current teen emphasis on "cute and brute," reports The New York Times. The most popular male site features professional wrestling, and the top site for girls is MTV's site. Parents who restrict the viewing of professional wrestling and MTV on television may not be aware that these popular sites exist on the Web.

-- Binge drinking. Although alcohol is an issue for all parents of teens, it is an especially critical issue for parents of seniors because of the college binge-drinking statistics. Nearly half of all college students binge drink (five or more drinks at a time for males and four for females). Parents worry about binge drinking because of the teen health issues related to alcohol poisoning. They are also concerned about rape, car crashes, fights, lack of attention to studies and sexual activity that occur after binge drinking.

Parents have long recognized the need to set limits for the safety and welfare of teens and for the well being of the family. In many families there are limits or boundaries related to bedtime, nutrition, curfews, amount of time spent on homework, grades, church attendance, clothing and hairstyles, leisure activities, friendships, telephone time, chores, driving, dating, reading materials, movies and television, music, sex outside of marriage, part-time work, body piercing, good manners, respect for elders, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, telling the truth, fighting, tithing, and so on. Each spring, parents of high school seniors must address limits issues related to prom and post-graduation parties and the freedom their seniors will experience when they enter college or the adult world of work.

Why do parents set these limits? Jane Bluestein, who wrote "Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line," observed, "All families need boundaries in order to operate. Children need limits so they can feel safe and secure; and they are able to grow and learn by testing these limits."

Some parents confuse showing love with being too permissive. The difference in these two styles of parenting is the setting of boundaries. To act in a loving manner toward one's child requires setting and maintaining boundaries.

A significant task for parents of teens is establishing boundaries and standards that will allow the creation of a win-win family relationship. Win-win boundaries are clear, specific and well communicated.

They do not lead toward forcing the teen into a loser's role while the parents are made the winners. They are proactive and positive. They take into consideration the needs of the parents as well as the needs of the teen when the boundaries are set. Parents of teens will want to set boundaries with input from the teen so that the teen can feel some ownership for the boundary.

For families who have not been successful in setting/maintaining limits and boundaries, is it ever too late to start setting boundaries or expecting teens to live with boundaries? No. A good way to work on making limits more meaningful is for the parents and the teen to cooperatively choose one area for improvement and work toward achieving adherence to that one limit before expecting a teen to conform to a spectrum of boundaries. Parents may want to suggest an area other than the one causing the greatest conflict for the first attempt at boundary improvement if that chief area of disagreement is very sensitive. (For additional information on setting boundaries, see Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line.)

Sticking with boundaries can be difficult for a parent who has always held to limits as well as the parent who is just beginning to establish boundaries.

Both kinds of parents recognize that parental submission reduces the respect of both the parent and the teen. Even though teens may say they want freedom, teens with no rules do not feel good for long because they want their parents to respect them, and they want to respect their parents. "Permissiveness breeds disrespect and discouragement, and invites rebellion. It's a vicious cycle that can create havoc in family life," write Don Dinkmeyer and Gary D. McKay in "The Parent's Guide: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting of Teens."

As teens respond well to the boundaries they and parents have accepted, they are on the road to setting their own boundaries -- which is the real goal that parents set for all teens. The concept that living within boundaries prepares one to be independent seems contradictory. However, when win-win boundaries are established and teens recognize the rewards that follow keeping limits and the consequences that follow breaking family limits, the teen is on the road toward being responsible.

Before teens leave home for college, vocational training, marriage or whatever they choose to do on their own, they should be setting many of their own limits and boundaries if their parents have given permission to grow toward independence. They have learned from watching their parents and from being given ever-increasing amounts of freedom as they accept more and more responsibility for themselves that independence and responsibility are a package deal -- one who lives within family or society's boundaries is the person who earns the most independence.

The issue of boundaries is no different from most other teen issues -- teens learn by example. Youth ministers, for example, will want to look at themselves to determine if they live by their own boundaries. Also, they will want to lead parents to review what they are teaching by their response to adult boundaries.

Youth ministers can be a valuable resource to parents. Youth ministers can stress that teen money issues are really teen stewardship issues. Youth ministers can provide training for parents and youth leaders in how to address money issues with their teens. And they can encourage church leaders to include youth when the church addresses stewardship issues.

To assist parents with Web issues, youth ministers will want to check out the firewalls that are currently available for home use. They will want to make parents aware that no firewall is a 100 percent guarantee that nothing unacceptable will come into a home. Parents and teens will want to establish an agreement about what is acceptable Web use and how the family wants the issue of meeting strangers via the Web to be handled. (Wise parents and teens never allow a teen to go alone to meet someone met over the Web.) Placing a computer in a family room rather than a teen's room is an easy way for a parent to stop regularly at the computer to see what is coming into the home.

While binge drinking is the extreme problem of alcohol use, the law and good sense say that no teens should be consuming alcohol. Taking a stand against alcohol when children are in elementary school and continuing to hold that boundary is one of the ways a parent will lay a foundation to prevent binge drinking.

Because teen parties are an issue in many families, youth ministers will want to share with parents guidelines from Ellen Ward, director of Texans Standing Tall, a coalition funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Ward suggests that when teens host a party, the parents set ground rules of no alcohol, no leaving the party and returning, confining the party to certain areas of the home, leaving the lights on; and establishing a starting and ending time for the party. Ward also offers suggestions for parents when a teen is invited to a party: call the adult host to thank them for hosting a party, offer assistance with refreshments, ask if alcoholic beverages will be allowed, know the teen's transportation plans, know the beginning and ending times for the party, remind the teen that one can receive a citation for being at a party where there is underage drinking, and be available to visit with the teen when he or she comes home.

Ward also encourages parents to join local coalitions to eliminate underage drinking as a way to address the basic alcohol and binge-drinking issues that parents attempt to solve with family boundaries.

Sullivan is student services officer, Klein Independent School District, Klein, Texas. Reprinted from Youth Ministry Update, published monthly by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Subscription information: Customer Service Center, 127 Ninth Ave., North, Nashville, TN 37234-0113; phone, 1-800-458-2772; email, CustomerService@lifeway.com.

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