Just Don’t Say No

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We were talking about school policies. Kathie described to me a school assembly about bullying with an impatient resentment. The program sounded like it was a sort of pep talk about recognizing bullying, how to deal with it, and where her school stands on it. During the remainder of the school day, Kathie thought it was ironic that there was more “noise” in the student body pretending to bully each other and mocking the idea, than ever before.
“It’s always like that, ” she said. “They make a big deal of telling us about something in a third grade kind of way that we already know.”
Kat made it clear, she believed – of all the clashes that could occur in her middle school, bullying is rarely one of them.
“Now, last year, we had an assembly about being too “touchy-feely” in the halls – girls and guys,” she explained. “Now that is a middle school problem. Maybe we do get a little too expressive in the halls, but the trouble is, after they called attention to it and tried to crack down, it got worse.”
“Human nature,” I mused. “I notice you said we.”
“Yeah, well, I was part of it sometimes,” she admitted. “Mom, when I’m happy or excited about something, I hug my friends whether they’re a guy or a girl. What’s wrong with that?” she asked.
“Nothing, if it’s only that,” I agreed. “It should be school appropriate, and that’s tough to monitor and enforce. Every instance is a little different, and you know that you kids are going to take advantage and push the envelope.” (I never understood that expression, but I used it.)*
“You need rules as guidelines even when they can’t be enforced 100 percent. Some people are going to see how much they can get away with. The key is that the enforcers need an intuitive sense of timing – when it’s time to sound off in a preventative way and when a problem could best be prevented by simply keeping quiet.
“Do you get what I mean?” Now I wasn’t sure I got what I meant, but Kathie said it made sense.
This dilemma with parental authority concerns me (really any supervisory authority over kids). How do we judge that fine line between when to call attention to something that wasn’t already on a young mind and when to not make a big deal, letting it work itself out without seeming indifferent? Ask anyone not to think about something that wasn’t already on their mind, and they’re going to think about it. It’s the principle our mass marketing and media empires are built on. Everything around us encourages us to say “yes.” Having the authority to advise kids seems to presuppose that we say “no”. It’s hard to know when not to say “no”.
To reach my kids about bullying, touchy-feely, or, more seriously, sex, smoking, or drugs, I have to make my disapproval clear without making it directly about them; make sure they know the consequences without preaching to them, then let them make their own choices and mistakes, just like I do.

*Pushing the envelope – According to Wilton’s Word Origins “this is an aviation term. It means pushing an aircraft to its limits…. Envelope has several secondary definitions referring to a collection of curves (mathematical and engineering jargon). So in the world of aeronautical engineering the envelope is the collection of curves that describe the maximum performance of an aircraft. To push the envelope is to take the aircraft to the edge of what it was designed to do and try to take it beyond.
(Knowing this, I like the phrase better since my dad was a pilot, but I may not use it correctly. I’ve come to understand it as pushing anything to the limits.)

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