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Are Kids “Overruled”?

Sunday, May 14, 2017
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By Saeculum Research

Excited to show off your prom dress? Not so fast—it needs to be approved by a school administrator.

That’s according to The Wall Street Journal, which offered a glimpse into ever-stricter prom guidelines that are becoming more common at schools around the country. It’s part of a massive buildup of rules that has come to define life for late-wave Millennials and Homelanders, who face multipart regulations guiding what they wear, how they behave (offline and online), and where they go. While rules of conduct are nothing new, today’s culture is unique in both the sheer volume of rules and their specificity—lending ammunition to critics who claim the rigmarole is suffocating kids. Even young people’s acts of rebellion are more controlled than confrontational—a stark contrast to how the older generations setting these rules behaved in their own youth.

The number of prom-related rules alone is dizzying to behold. When it comes to clothing, schools are setting limits for nearly everything imaginable: hemlines, necklines, cleavage, hairstyles, and accessories. The rulebook for promwear at Boylan Catholic High School in Illinois stretches to 21 pages. Guests must fall within certain age limits or submit forms that attest to their good reputation. In Texas’s Sanger school district, they must undergo a criminal background check. It’s also becoming standard for administrators to keep an eye on the clock: Prom attendees at Glenbard East High School in Illinois, for example, have to arrive by 8 PM and can’t leave before 10 PM. “We are concerned and looking out for our students from a safety standpoint,” the vice principal told the Journal.

The ramped-up prom guidelines mirror stricter rules governing appearance at school more generally. Department of Education data indicate that one in five public schools required uniforms in 2014, up from 12 percent in 2000. In certain cities, this figure is much higher: As of 2013, nearly all public school students in New Orleans (95 percent), Cleveland (85 percent), and Chicago (80 percent) wear them. Overall, more than half (59 percent) of public schools now enforce a “strict dress code”—up from 47 percent a decade ago.

More behavioral standards are being put in place in schools, too. By all accounts, zero-tolerance policies toward truancy and tardiness are spreading. Rigid discipline is the norm at charter-school networks like KIPP, which largely serve low-income students of color. At Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans, for example, students are forbidden from slouching, using slang, leaning against walls, wearing the wrong colors, or failing to say thank you.

Perhaps the most notorious example of rules gone wild are “no touching” policies. MichiganCaliforniaNew Jersey, and New Hampshire are just some of the states where schools have banned students from hugging or playing hands-on games like tag or touch football. In 2013, one Long Island middle school banned nearly all balls during recess and began requiring adult supervision for cartwheels and games of tag. Similar rules are springing up at camps and sports leagues, with officials defending them as a matter of propriety and safety—and as a protective measure to avoid lawsuits.

Even curricula reflect an increased emphasis on rules and structure. Preschoolers and kindergartners are being introduced to mathematical concepts and encouraged to think logically. More classrooms are integrating programming into lessons: In a 2014 Gallup/Google poll, a whopping 90 percent of parents said they want their children to learn more computer science at school. Meanwhile, the social-emotional learning (SEL) movement continues gaining in popularity (see: “Children, Behave Yourselves­”), formalizing the instruction of skills like self-control and empathy. Beneath the touchy-feely veneer, the core competency taught by SEL is the ability to resist an impulse for the sake of someone else’s priority—that is, the ability to follow a rule. This year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as “the nation’s report card”) included SEL-related questions for the first time.

Outside of school, kids and teens are faced with more restrictions than ever. In a reversal from 1988, research indicates­ that parents of young children now favor rule-based discipline (timeouts) to more impulsive physical discipline (spanking). Plenty of activities that these parents did routinely as kids are now verboten, like staying out after dark, walking to places alone, or staying home by themselves—a shorter leash reinforced by new curfew laws and shopping mall bans. Youth sports are also getting a makeover (see: “Why America Wants Safer Sports”) as organizations like USA Football and U.S. Soccer­ add rules to prevent concussions and other injuries.

Today’s youth, of course, are growing up with an additional dimension older generations didn’t: the Internet. While Web-savvy Millennial and Xer parents are good at setting usage rules (or installing software that sets complex rules automatically), kids have created their own elaborate universe of social rules for platforms like Instagram and Snapchat: how often to post, how many and what kind of pictures are acceptable, and how to handle awkward situations. A generation that has adapted to so many rules is very capable of making up rules for themselves. Codes of conduct are how today’s kids are accustomed to negotiating relationships and play a huge role in how they judge others and themselves.

How do Homelanders and late-wave Millennials feel about all these rules? Many adults, including those behind the “free-range kids­” movement, protest that this environment is strangling kids’ development and leaving them overly fragile and deferent. Yet young people themselves have largely met these rules with a shrug. When they break the rules, they do so subversively, not confrontationally: using disappearing messages (of the sort pioneered by Snapchat), anonymous social sites (so-called “Finstagram,” as in fake Instagram), or peer-only sites. This way, they get more freedom while still maintaining a good reputation and avoiding bad marks on their “permanent record.”

The difference is also easy to see when they do openly resist rules. Often, late-wave Millennials see rule-breaking as an earnest way to spark change. Students have objected to dress codes, for example, on the grounds that they’re sexist, promote body shaming, or are unfair to those who are gender-nonconforming—and their solution is to call for inclusivity. At Boylan Catholic High School, some students are planning to host an “alternative prom” the same night. At Buchanan High School in California, they recently switched gender norms for a day to protest their traditional dress code. “Hopefully, the board will see that we aren’t blindly rebelling, but simply advocating for our rights,” one participant told CNN.

These earnest young people offer an interesting contrast at a time when the adults in charge are hardly models of civility. The last generation that took this kind of controlled approach was the one that raised their parents: the Silent. It’s likely that Homelanders will follow their example and continue going along with the rules that raised them—while keeping their messier impulses contained just below the surface.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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