Recently I facilitated a conversation with an interesting group of high school coeds from both public and parochial schools across Long Island. Our topics were appearance versus style, drinking and communication.
The first area of conversation dealt with the issue of school dress - uniforms versus choosing your own attire. All the students in the conversation, as well as the dozen or more students across the bi-county community, that I surveyed on the question of uniforms all said they did not mind uniforms. Most used words like, "I like them, they make life so much easier." A few said they were okay and said they would rather wear a uniform than worry about what to wear. The only complaint with a qualification came from a senior girl who said she didn't mind the uniforms with one exception; she said she did not like the over the knee rule for her skirts.
Unconsciously, all the students agreed the uniform issue took a lot of stress and pressure from their lives. They did not have to deal with keeping up with their peers, worrying about the latest fashion or the issue of just not having the cash to remain current with what is in.
The public school students had an interesting response to the question of uniforms. I spoke to guys and girls. A number of the young men felt that dress was part of one's self-expression and one's identity. They were reluctant to support mandatory uniforms like those that they have in parochial schools.
However, in that same conversation they also admitted that peer pressure around clothing is out of control. They criticized how so many of their peers make provocative comments about fellow students' dress. Sometimes they admitted that the comments even deteriorated into hurtful teasing.
In this same conversation, these students raised the painful social issue about the "haves" and "have nots." In most of their schools, it is pretty evident who can afford to have the latest styles versus those who are forced to wear tattered clothing because of serious economic problems.
By the end of the conversation, this particular group of public high school students were advocating for a mild dress code policy that might bridge the gap between the "have" and the "have nots."
As I listened to these high school coeds share so candidly about "dress" and its' social implications it became clear that for many students it is another arena of peer pressure that could possibly increase the stress in our son or daughter's life.
The question of tattoos and body piercings came up. All the students believed it should be their personal choice and not the decision of their parents. Some students felt parents had the right to give input, but it was an intrusion on one's personal freedom to try and block that social choice.
One sophomore boy shared an interesting conversation he had with his mother around tattoos. Instead of her going ballistic when he raised the question, she disarmed him by asking him questions about health and safety. She said, "Are you prepared to live with whatever you tattoo on your body for the rest of your life, especially if it is the name of someone you say you love today at sixteen, but possibly could hate tomorrow?"
She then spoke of some of the possible health risks because of the needlework. She was honest and not melodramatic in terms of the percent of people who develop infections after getting tattoos.
Her final comment was that she would not support his decision, nor would she block it. She also said that if he had a problem after the fact, he would have to take care of it, especially if it involved finances.
After that initial conversation that he did not expect from his Mom, his position on his right to decide for or against didn't change, but he did decide to wait on getting a tattoo.
In this same conversation, we also talked about teenage drinking, smoking weed and smoking cigarettes. All students involved in this conversation were under eighteen. They acknowledged that teenage drinking is out of control. A number of students admitted that they were shocked at how many middle school students were drinking and smoking.
When I asked them why is it so socially acceptable, many indicated that they see adults giving a very mixed message on the issues.
A number of the students in the group acknowledged being at house parties on the weekends where parents were home and alcohol was available. The attitude that one student expressed was that the parents of this particular house felt that high school kids are going to drink anyway and they wanted them to be safe. Thus, the attitude of tolerance was their position.
Another student spoke about how the rules are applied unevenly depending on who you are. If you are a jock or active in student activities, there are one set of rules. If you are a fringe student or a student who is often non-compliant around petty things, you are treated another way.
The inconsistency and poor role modeling on the part of adults was seen as one reason or as an excuse for social non-compliance.
Some of those teens also felt that the drinking restrictions and smoking rules were ridiculous, especially if the student in question was a good student, cooperative and compliant in all other areas of life.
The last area we spoke about was communication. All students I spoke with said that, at best, their communication skills were weak to poor. Only three students said their communication skills were excellent.
When I asked why communication was so impaired, they said everyone is running in four million directions at one time. They indicated that they often might not see their Mom or Dad for a few days at a time due to everyone's schedules. Others said fear kept them from approaching their parents, especially around delicate issues.
They all agreed that they needed to work harder at communicating. To my surprise, all of the students in this conversation who did not have good communication skills with their parents said they missed that. They expressed a sincere desire to be close and share even the delicate, sensitive issues in their lives.
The students I met with need to be commended on their honesty and candor. As parents, we need to make time, no matter what, to converse on a regular basis with our children, so we are not raising anonymous strangers. We should pick our battles and not sweat the small stuff. We need to be consistent and work on not being controlling. Most importantly, we need to work on attentive listening that is not engaged with shame, blame or guilt.
If we make the effort in this regard, miracles will happen!