Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes

CHAPTERS: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Chapter 8 – Social life: freedom and limits

It is a credit to our teenagers that many reject phony popularity. Our values should support faith in one's own feelings, and the courage to stand alone when necessary. Our teenagers will need such courage to go against the crowd in refusing a drink, declining a smoke, avoid reckless driving, and in making decisions about sexuality. Their life and safety may at times depend on their ability to be unpopular and resist parroting some precocious peers. Our message to our children should be: “We value integrity more than popularity. We put personal decency above social success.”

Janet, age thirteen, gave a slumber party to which she invited ten girls. She was informed that many of them would not attend if one of her friends came to the party. Distressed and in conflict, Janet was ready to yield. But her parents objected. They made it clear that a friend is not to be discarded because of pressure. Father said: “In our home, loyalty to a friend takes precedence over popularity.”

A dramatic stand on values makes a strong impact on our teenagers. Even if they don't like our words, they respect our strength and value our integrity. They derive pride and dignity from our insistence on courage and fairness.

The Case Against Early Dating

Teenagers are often pushed into dating by parents who want them to be popular. They allow paired parties for twelve-year-olds, padded bras for eleven-year-olds, and going steady for an ever younger age.

Teenagers should not be rushed toward adulthood. They should be allowed to continue for a while longer to prefer baseball to parties, reading to dancing, and fishing to dating. Paired parties and dating are a burden to many boys and girls. Many youngsters would not choose them voluntarily. The shy, the sensitive, and the late-bloomer can be hurt before they have the time to blossom naturally. As comedian Woody Allen said: “Since infancy I felt like a failure. Even in nursery school I failed milk.”

The following statements are examples of undesirable pressure:

Father to son:

“You are almost fifteen, but when I see your comic books, I think you are only ten. Other boys your age are already going out with girls.”

A fifteen-year-old girl wrote to a magazine columnist:

“My mother keeps after me about boys. She arranges parties and dates for me with the sons of her friends. I find it boring. What I really love is horseback riding. (I have won three ribbons in jumping.) When I tell it to my mother she gets upset and cries. I then feel that there is something wrong with me.”

Says fourteen-year-old Fern:

“I would rather spend the evening reading than going to a silly party. But my mother keeps telling me that she does not want books to interfere with my social life.”

Says fifteen-year-old Marilyn:

“I would rather spend an evening with my girl friends than with a boy I do not like. But my parents push me into dating. They think I don't go out enough. They are angry when I turn down a date.

Junior High: Sensible Programs and Timetables

Many parents have become alarmed by the premature social and sexual activities of their children: The ballroom dancing, the party clubs, the formal wear, and the steady dating. In many communities, parents and teachers have been meeting to discuss sensible programs and suitable timetables for teenage activities. The intent is to reverse the trend, to avoid rushed sexual awakening, and to allow boy-girl interest to develop at a natural pace. Supervised group activities may be more appropriate than dating and romance at this age.

Senior High: Autonomy and Guidance

In senior high school, a teenager feels grown-up. He is nearing independence, and resents limits on his autonomy. Yet adults cannot relinquish their guidance. At this age, teenagers are in danger of over-crowding their social life to the detriment of academic achievements. Conflict with parents and teachers are almost inevitable. The following statements by parents of senior high school students illustrate some typical conflicts and attempted helpful solutions:

“We allow our fifteen-year-old to date, but we insist on meeting her boy friends and on knowing where they are going. Our daughter knows that we expect her home by eleven o'clock. She may not like these restrictions, but we believe they help her feel protected.”

“My sixteen-year-old daughter questioned the midnight curfew. She said: ‘One can get into trouble at any hour.' My husband answered, ‘I hope you will make good decisions at any hour. Midnight is a reasonable hour to be home.'”

“Our daughter leaves us a note before going out on a date. She tells us where she can be reached in case of emergency. This solved a painful situation. She used to resent our prying. The note is a face saving device.”

“My daughter calls when she is late on a date. I once said to her: ‘Let me also have a good time instead of a worried time when you are out. When you are going to be late, call.' I think she does not mind knowing that we care for her. Her curfew varies with the occasion. We treat her with respect. She responds in kind.”

“I discovered that my daughter has been dating for status. She ignored her own feelings, in order to be seen with a VIP: a baseball star, a class president, a sports car owner. I had a long talk with her about the ethics of dating. I said: ‘A Date is not a decoration. It is a human relationship.' My daughter listened with surprise. I hope she got the point.”

“My sixteen-year-old daughter wanted to ditch a date. She asked me to cover for her. She said, ‘If Irving calls, tell him that I'm sick.' I refused. I said, ‘I feel it is unfair to stand up anyone without an explanation or an apology.' ‘I want to go to the beach and Irving doesn't have a car,' she answered defensively. ‘You wish you had a date with someone who has a car.' ‘Yes,' she said. The she added, ‘I guess I'd better call him and cancel our date.'”

“I asked my seventeen-year-old daughter, who is going steady, ‘How are you going to know if there is someone else you would like even more?' She admitted that she was bored with her boyfriend, but was scared to give him up. I answered, ‘It's not easy to make such a decision. It's scary to face a dateless weekend.' ‘Yes,' said my daughter with obvious relief. ‘It's not easy but I'll have to do it.'”

“My eighteen-year-old daughter said to me, ‘This time I know I'm in love. When I see Jim, my heart pounds and my knees tremble. I just look at him, and I melt. We don't even have to talk.' I was tempted to say, ‘You had better start talking,' but I controlled myself. She is so thrilled with his presence that she is not using to courtship to get to know him. They don't converse. They just smooch. They need to communicate more than in kisses. She knows so little about him. Does he love children? Does he have a temper? How does he stand up under stress? He is charming when things go right. How does he measure up when things go wrong? I am waiting for an appropriate moment to have an intimate conversation with my daughter. Right not she is too high in the clouds to listen.”

“My seventeen-year-old is dating a football hero. ‘I love him,' she says, ‘and it's not blind love.' But her vision isn't twenty-twenty, either. She has never taken a good look at him. She does not see the man because of the halo. He has nothing to show but his muscles. What will he do when the football season is over – read his scrapbook? It is so hard to keep quiet when you fear that your daughter is making a mistake. But I know too well that my direct intervention will only push them into each other's arms. I invite her to tell me all about their time together. My hope is that her inherently good taste will prevail.”

Ira, age sixteen, informed his father that he no longer wished to belong to his synagogue. He felt it was too restrictive and too demanding. His father answered, “I know it's not easy to keep commandments. It certainly makes life more difficult for you. But this is part of our heritage and I expect you to observe it.” Ira replied: “When I grow up and leave home, I am going to do as I please.” Father answered, “I should hope that even then you would consider the tradition observed by your parents, grandparents, and countless generations before them.” Ira's father upheld the family tradition without attacking his son's dignity. He acknowledged his son's desire, sympathized with his difficulties, but insisted on values. He knew full well that he could not control his son's behavior outside the home. Nevertheless, he stated his expectations clearly and without insult. Eventually Ira will have to reevaluate his standards, cope with his conscience, and arrive at his own decision. By setting limits, Ira's father set in motion a process conducive to growth and maturity.

Our Responsibility: Setting Standards and Upholding Limits while Respecting Feelings

As adults our responsibility is to set standards and demonstrate values. Our teenagers need to know what we respect and what we expect. Of course, they will oppose our standards, resist our rules, and test our limits. This is as it should be. No one can mature by blindly obeying their parents. Our teenagers' resentment of the rules is anticipated and tolerated. They are not expected to like our prohibitions.

There is a crucial difference between the old way of imposing restrictions and the new way of setting limits. In the past the teenager's feelings were often ignored. The restrictions were set amidst anger and argument and in a language that invited resistance. In the modern approach, limits are set in a manner that preserves our teenager's self-respect. The limits are neither arbitrary nor capricious. They are anchored in values and aimed at character-building.

The distinction between feelings and acts is the cornerstone of the new approach to teenagers. We are permissive when dealing with feelings and wishes. We are strict when dealing with unacceptable behavior. We respect our teenagers' opinions and attitudes, we do not belittle their dreams and desires, but we reserve the right to stop or redirect some of their acts. As adults we are not our teenagers' pals or playmates. We are their friendly guardians, concerned enough and strong enough to endure their temporary animosity when we must uphold standards and values that protect them and society.


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