BOSTON — Before I had children, I had a conversation with a good friend who did have kids. One comment she made stuck with me. "No two-year-old is going to run my life." She didn't mean it in the sense of not paying attention to the needs of a child, but rather that a child's wishes and decision-making didn't come first.
Part of me rebelled at her statement. "But children should come first. They're so pure. We must not crush their spirits," or some such thoughts surfaced. But part of me, even in my inexperience with children, knew there was truth in what she said.
That truth became evident when I had children of my own. My wife and I early came to a mutual understanding on the necessity of saying "No." Everybody wants things; it's only natural. But there are things you can't have sometimes, for very good reasons. We learned that when kids were denied what they wanted, they'd get upset. That makes sense, too. We don't try to squelch that feeling, but rather, simply acknowledge it. It doesn't mean we give in. If our kids get really upset, they may need to cry or be angry. That's OK. It's a storm that passes, almost inevitably bringing a refreshing new atmosphere afterward. Setting clear boundaries also seems to limit the dreaded "whinitis."
We also saw how hard this approach was for many other families. It can be difficult to let kids be upset, and just witness those feelings. But, as our children and their friends grow older, we see the results, as some kids become little tyrants.
I was in the checkout line with my three-year-old daughter. I had told her she could choose a piece of candy, but that she would need to eat it in the car. It was a familiar routine for us at the supermarket. As I busied myself with the checkbook, I glanced back at her. She had taken the candy and was busy unwrapping it. I reached back and took it. "I said you needed to wait until we were in the car. Now you'll have to wait until we get home." She got upset and began to cry, but I held firm. "You know our rule about this."
The woman at the checkout turned to me. "Good for you," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"It's not one parent in a hundred who follows through with what they tell their kids here in line," she said. "I think kids need parents to do what they say they'll do. But they hardly ever do."
"Thanks," I said. "I appreciate hearing that. It can be hard, especially in public places."
"I told my kids 'No,' she said. "I wish more people would."
I took my daughter by the hand and headed out. But even as I comforted her, I couldn't help thinking of the incredible vantage point the checkout counter provides. What parent doesn't know the dangers of running the gantlet of candy bars? It seemed like a perfect spot for observing parents and children.
Where did we ever get the idea that loving someone means that you can't say no to them? When this happens between adults, we call it co-dependence. But somehow for kids, we think of it as allowing freedom, protecting them from the world, or showing that we love them. Limits let children know that they are safe.
In "Reviving Ophelia," Mary Pipher says that research suggests that children raised with love and limits have an easier time in adolescence.
Parents need to listen to children and truly consider their point of view. But in the end, we have to decide. As children grow older, we should give them more and more decisionmaking power. Limits then have more to do with allowing them to try, and sometimes to fail.
But for now, the limits are mostly about saying yes and no in the context of our family's routines. I try not to let my daughters run my life, even though they are the most important part of it.
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society