From the time children begin to move around on their own, parents are confronted with a decision about how freely they should be allowed to do this and the question of what the appropriate limits are to their behavior and how to set those limits.
Crawling babies are often interested in following a light cord to its socket or reaching for a breakable object on the coffee table. With more mobility may come the dangerous objects under the kitchen sink or other things to investigate such as remote controls for the TV left lying around. Babies and toddlers seek to explore their world and everything in it is an object of their curiosity. For this reason, new parents are cautioned to “child proof” their home, meaning put everything valuable or breakable out of sight.
The old saying is, “little children little problems, big children bigger problems.” So it is with the issue of allowing freedom. One often sees a parent watching with trepidation as her child on a scooter gets to the street corner before her. Is it safe? Will he stop at the corner? Does he understand traffic lights? Even with good intentions, how much self-control does he have?
Then may come the question of going outside alone, going to the neighborhood store or eventually going to school by oneself. Even within the home children may begin to challenge parental limits or rules about tv or computer time, bed time or time to be spent on homework. With parents out at work the question may arise as to when children can be left alone or given various responsibilities.
As children get older the questions become more challenging, particularly in the face of the refrain, “my friends are allowed to do it.” This can mean what time to get home, what movie to go to, what tv program to watch. The father of a teenager was thrown by his daughter’s wish to go somewhere with a friend who was a newly licensed driver.
Children often feel powerless in the face of parental rules and unilateral decisions. So they deny facts or forcefully assert their independence. Part of being a child is to fudge the truth at times, evade the rules and if all else fails, beg and cry. Parents often feel as though the only alternatives are to try enforce their authority in some way or to “give in” to the child.
This gets to the hard part of being a parent. There is no child-rearing manual that can tell you the “right” thing to do. Parents may worry that a child may defy them, or that “giving in” threatens their authority for the future. But authority as a parent means making decisions about what is best for your child. There is no rule that applies to every situation. The decision one makes involves a judgement about safety, about a child’s level of maturity, sense of responsibility, and one’s values as a parent.
Parents give up their authority and no longer stay in charge when they become drawn into an argument on the child’s level. Children can wear you down every time. It may seem easier at the moment either to just do what they want or to try to lay down the law. It is this abdication of real decision making by a parent that leads to the undermining of authority next time around. Real authority lies in doing what you think best in each situation, even when it is what the child wants.
And even with uncertainty about whether your decision is the right one.