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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

Setting Values-Based Boundaries

How do we navigate by values, not just by rules?

Rules are a funny thing. We clearly need them, sometimes for the sake of others and sometimes for the sake of ourselves. There should be a policy, for example, prohibiting people from chatting in a movie theater. That type of rule benefits us, as moviegoers. And I support seat-belt laws, which have significantly protected people from death and injury, according to this study by the NIH.

Then this other side of me kicks in. The one that simultaneously embraces mantras like “make your own rules.” The side that is skeptical of accepting every single rule as dogma, because rules run amok turns into control, conformity, and honestly it can get BORING.

When I lived near the beach, I loved climbing up on this one set of large boulders where the waves would crash, to take in the view at dusk. I did that climb all the time, and those moments of natural solitude were spectacular. Late one afternoon, a lifeguard who happened to be in the vicinity informed me about the rule stating that, unbeknownst to me, climbing up there was forbidden. Of course, I immediately obliged, and of course, I also waited for him to leave so that I could get back up there. I couldn’t stomach that rule, one that surely intends to protect the public, but just doesn’t apply to the manner in which I live my life. (I concede that the main argument for following these laws is that it frees up our first-responders from spending time and resources on an incident that could’ve been prevented. But to live that way all the time would be excruciatingly vanilla.)

So now that we’ve framed the dilemma regarding rules, how do we approach rule setting with our children, and with schools? For generations, schools and rules have gone hand-in-hand. They’re so intertwined that the words even rhyme for God’s sake. I further concede that structurally, we do need over-arching school policies, which at their roots aim to establish fairness and justice. Rules for “the big stuff” I can get behind.

But rules for “the little stuff” become questionable for me. That’s why at some point, when dealing in the day-to-day, we must transition to values.

Rule #1 (irony is fun): If we set a rule, its essence and explanation must always speak to higher-level human values. “That’s the way it is” or “Because I said so” are relics of a more rigid, authoritarian model of the past.

Take for instance this one student I had, who was notoriously late to class. She wasn’t even quiet about it, which amplified the problem. She’d come late into class and engage her friends seated elsewhere in the room, discussing the latest gossip, which turns out does not enhance students’ abilities to solve math equations. One infraction led to another, and eventually, her, the dean, and I sat down for a conference.

Every policy driven statement we made to her that day fell on deaf ears. We informed her how many times she was late, stated that her participation grade would falter, and reminded her of the newly rolled out school tardiness policy. None of these attempts to alter her perspective penetrated her (understandably) walled off, student vs. authority demeanor in that meeting. Then I spoke from the heart, “<name>, if you were standing at the front of the room, attempting to present something, I would never dream of talking over you or disrupting you like this. I would never do this to you.” It was that admission, founded on deeper values such as respect and care for each other, that softened her face. In other words, you can have a policy, but it must be steeped in the values you wish to instill.

Rule #2: Some good news is that in a values-based setting, you can have far more positive influence on students’ conduct than by hollowly classifying actions as legal or not. One morning in this past summer’s Geometry course I taught, I walked into the room and said cheerfully, “Good morning!” to which a student seated in the front grunted something vaguely sounding like a mummy returning to life. Without hesitation, in a comical display I dropped to my knees in front of this student, and with wide-smiling eye contact, I enunciated once more, “Good morrrrning…” to which I got a sheepishly smiling “good morning” reply back.

Needless to say, I do not have an “all students must greet me with ‘good morning’” policy printed on our class syllabus. But by taking the moment to insist on a proper morning salutation, I’m communicating personal values of respect and acknowledgement for each other. The point is that we must widen our view beyond the rules-based lens alone. From this higher vantage point, we can set our focus on establishing a culture.

By cultural ideologies, we shouldn’t be late not because it’ll mess up your grade, but rather because it’s disruptive and disrespectful. That’s why I absolutely stand by Dr. Bruce Powell’s description of bells in a school setting as “Pavlovian.” He’s expressing his values in that punctuality is an ironclad social obligation, thus not requiring anything audible to champion it. Last time I checked, there aren’t reminder bells that mark if you’re late for your dinner reservation, or if you made it on time for the wedding rehearsal.

Students can immediately spot authority figures that wish to appeal to higher-level values, versus those who rely heavily on policies to drive their actions and reactions. Ask yourself which model is more inspirational, or even more effective. Yes, there are age-appropriate adjustments to make. Younger kids may need relatively more specific rules, as a starting point for making appropriate choices. It’s our job, as leaders, to unravel the complexity of rules-based living, and create spaces that bring out our students’ best selves. We want them to understand not only what their conduct must be, but why it must be as well.

See you up on the boulders.

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