More About Limits

Years ago, at a conference on censorship, the discussion touched on the need to protect children from exposure to certain material – an even more pressing issue in today’s world of the internet and cable television. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, reported that when she was growing up her mother censored Horatio Alger stories because the grammar was bad.

Mead went on to say that she used to read the prohibited material under the quilt at night with a flashlight. Her point was that children will always find a way to subvert adult rules, but that this was far different than a newsstand displaying magazines with sexual material on its covers that children passed on their way to school every day. The distinction she made was that in one instance a parent’s values are made clear, in the other society seemingly gives approval to those kinds of displays.

I thought of this in connection with the question of parents setting limits on children’s behavior. So often the issue becomes one of parental authority, concern about enforcing limits that have been set, how to do this and whether failure to do so will diminish parents’ authority.

Of course, the question becomes more intense when possible safety issues are involved. Little children who are bent on exploration will often reach for that which is beyond their grasp with limited understanding of the dangers parents perceive. Parents may have to intervene physically when young children’s limited impulse control makes attempts at verbal control inadequate.

The situation is more complicated when children get older and may rebel, disagreeing with the parental assessment of danger in what they want to do but are beyond the kind of physical control that was appropriate when small. Parents search for effective responses and often consider the threat of punishments as a means to limit behavior. When children seem undeterred by such threats the situation can escalate with full blown confrontation as a result.

A more familiar outcome often is parents setting limits on children’s wished for plans and children grudgingly seeming to accept the ground rules but then finding ways to circumvent the parental limits. A familiar example is a child being told to call home or return home at a certain time which then doesn’t happen, followed by a range of excuses such as the bus was late, my phone’s battery died, it wasn’t possible to call, etc. etc.

Children’s evasive behavior in response to parental limit setting is part of the normal process of growing up, spreading one’s wings and testing the parameters of independent functioning. Parents may find it hard to start letting go as children get older and children pushing back is part of a process that ultimately leads to independence. It is in this regard that Dr. Mead’s point is relevant.

Through this process children are learning parent’s values even when they seem to be ignoring them. While seeming to rebel, they nevertheless internalize the standards for behavior that are being set and hopefully, at some point those standards will become their own.

Not fully appreciated when children appear to be defiant, is that many times parents are saving children from themselves. Particularly in adolescence, young people can get caught up in a plan with peers about which they themselves feel some anxiety – an activity that seems a little threatening even to them. If parents disapprove and refuse necessary permission, the young person can vent his fury at a parent while feeling relief at being prevented from engaging in a somewhat scary course of action.

Parents can take heart in knowing that “mean” parents can mean safe children.

Getting to Know You

We often have definite ideas about what our children were like as babies but do such ideas match up in any way to their personalities as they develop? We seem to read so much of ourselves or our own histories in our children.

Why do we find it challenging to see our children as their own people separate from ourselves? Mothers carrying babies in their bodies begins a very strong connection. We imagine even before birth what the baby will be like. Sometimes it is hard to shift from the imagined baby to the real baby, since they are rarely the same.

There are genetic connections as well. Children look like a member of the family. They may have similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. Your mother or mother-in-law may say that you or your husband were just like that. It’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person. If we expect that kind of identification and instead a child seems very different, that can become a cause for concern, or of feeling disconnected from one’s child.

We may have childhood memories of not having felt understood by our parents. Sometimes as parents we set about trying to correct whatever we didn’t like in our own growing up. In trying to do that, without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – namely treating our children as though they are us, correcting our own lives through our children. Or realizing our own ambitions through our children.

What makes it difficult to separate our children from ourselves is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Someone said that children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, but instead as parents we want our children to learn from our experience, to try to keep them from the mistakes we think they are making or about to make.

It is often hard to know when children need to be protected from their own behavior and when to leave them alone to learn from their own mistakes. We don’t try to stop children from walking because they fall down while learning. We pick them up and help them keep going. On the other hand, we do intervene if they are trying to climb way beyond their ability and are likely really to get hurt. It can be hard at times, to make a judgment about which is which.

Perhaps what is most challenging is accepting children’s behavior when it is consistent with who they are. For example, a child who is cautious in social situations a mother may aptly describe as “slow to warm up”. Yet the behavior itself becomes a cause for concern because mom herself was like that and feels it was a handicap. She wants to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality and has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her to be – or not to be.

The same is true for other behavior, such as when children are self-assertive, willful, observers more than participants, or loners rather than joiners. Because children are still learning how to function in the world, they may not always moderate their behavior in ways that serve them well in various situations. As when they were learning to walk, we now need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.

But first we need to know who they are.

Money Talks

My high school age granddaughter received her first paycheck for her summer job. This led, with great pride, to opening her own bank account. Apparently, some banks have checking accounts for high school age children with various protective restrictions attached. She is now able to write checks on her account and learn, hopefully, to keep an accurate balance.

Of course, many young people today have had experience making their own purchases with gift credit cards they have received, or cards to buy iTunes and the like. Unless they have kept a record of what they have spent on a credit card, they may be confronted with insufficient funds, unable to buy something new they wanted.

The old saying is that one should not talk to others about money or politics. Apparently, according to a recent Merrill Private Wealth Management study, too many parents carry this over to not discussing money or its management with their children. They think their job is to talk to their children about sex, drugs and drinking, but are uncomfortable talking about money. The study’s authors attribute this to fear and control – the fear to relinquish that control and the deeper psychological issues around money.

The families in that study reflect a high-income group with issues of inheritance involved. However, the questions raised seem to have more general application. Surely, money as a means of control is apparent between parents and children – and also has been cited as a factor in relationships between husbands and wives.

Parents are familiar with the pleas, or demands of children who want them to buy toys or treats they see in stores, or that friends have received. Uncertainty about how to respond to this is an ongoing question, whether to simply say no, talk about the expense involved, or even criticize a child for wanting too much. Part of the control issue may be that if children think you can afford it there may be no reason to deny buying what they want.

But this is connected to many issues in parenting that involve the question of authority. Is your authority as a parent related to money? Is money the source of your power? It may seem that way to children who are prevented from getting what they want. Also involved may be an implicit comparison to other parents, putting pressure on parents to provide what other children have. A mother who was against buying an Ipad for her young son discovered he was the only child in his class without one.

This points to the question of values, which are part of establishing priorities, both of which come into play in decisions involving money. There are many ways that we communicate our values to our children but the way we spend money is an important one. Saying “no” to buying ice cream before lunch is one kind of value. On the other hand, buying the toy the child wants raises an issue of priorities.

As adults we know we have to save to buy certain things we want but we may also decide that something else is more important. Waiting for what you want is especially hard for young children, and what is desired right then and there may seem unquestionably to be the most important. Learning that you can’t have everything you want is a learning process that develops with maturity.

What we forget is the learning part, and that as parents we are teachers. Our answers to children need to be more than a simple yes or no. We can sympathize with how hard it is to wait for what you want while explaining that the money we have must also pay for many other things. Like everything else we teach our children we speak to the developmental level they are at.

Money does talk but parents have to interpret for children what it is saying.

Limits on Freedom?

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.

Do As I Say!

As parents, we sometimes joke about telling children to “Do as I say, not as I do”. We admit to ourselves that we are not always a model for the way we want our children to behave. Those of us who are parents are all too aware of the role of imitation in children’s learning.

Often, we think about it as children learning things we don’t like from others. Such as, “He learned those words from the kids in school”. Or, “She picked that up from the child next door.” We worry about what our children are learning from what they see on television or in the movies.

But how about the things they learn by imitating us? Imitation is part of most learning, beginning early on. See how intently a baby studies your face when you babble and coo at her. Children copy the names we give to things, watch the way we do many things, such as learning to eat with utensils, manipulate objects, even turning on the remote control to the tv.

They also learn things we may not be aware we are teaching them. Have you ever asked a family member to tell someone on the phone you are not in because you don’t want to talk to her? Have you ever written a note to school saying your child was home with a cold when in reality a conflicting family plan had been made? Have you ever told someone her outfit was beautiful when you thought it most unattractive?

Little white lies seem to be part of what makes the world go around, avoiding hurting people’s feelings and at times smoothing difficult situations for ourselves. But our children are also getting the message that this is the way to handle things – and they don’t always apply what they see in ways of which we approve. Children often skirt the truth as a way to avoid parental disapproval or anger.

“Did you take your brother’s toy?” “No, he lost it.” Or, “Who turned the tv on?” “I didn’t do it!” Or the old joke, “The dog ate my homework.” Children are at times accused of lying in such situations and are disapproved of strongly. We criticize them when they tell untruths to avoid blame or punishment. Yet it is not clear to them how this differs from some of the things they have seen us do, or the way we have handled certain situations.

We learn in life that it would not always be helpful or useful to be completely honest with everyone about everything. Everything is not black or white, and part of maturity is learning to respond appropriately depending on the circumstances. Children are more concrete, and do tend to see things as black or white – shades of grey are more elusive. One way we can help them learn is to become clearer ourselves about what we are doing and the ways in which our children may be imitating us.

This happens on so many levels, not just the little white lies, but the way we respond to a request for a favor from a friend or the beggar on the street, from the things we choose to buy or not buy, even the general way we interact with others – those we know as well as those we don’t.

Whether we like it or not, too often the real message our children take from us is, “Do as I do, not as I say”. That is the message children get – even when we don’t realize we are delivering it.


What is Discipline

My granddaughter, a first-time counselor, reported that her bunk consisted of 9 year- old girls who were hard to discipline. They complained and often did not want to participate in activities. I said she was beginning to sound a lot like a parent.

Parents raise the question of discipline when children’s behavior runs counter to their expectations or requests. A child “refuses to listen”, or is defiant, or behaves in unacceptable ways if he doesn’t get what he or she wants. Discipline then becomes a search for a method that will control behavior we don’t like, or feel is inappropriate. Parents often say, “She has to learn to do as she is told”, or “He has to learn he can’t have everything he wants.” The question then is, if a child has to learn something, what is the best way to teach it?

Even when talking about teaching and learning, a strong feeling persists in many of us that only punishment will drive a lesson home. People have strong opinions about whether or not punishment is an effective teacher. But somehow punishment only comes up as a method of teaching for certain kinds of behavior – behavior that is considered “bad”. Few of us would think of punishment as a solution for a child having a hard time learning to tie her shoelaces, or learning spelling, or solving arithmetic problems. We distinguish between academic learning and social learning, yet both involve teaching.

So the question really is, what is an effective way of teaching appropriate social behavior? Maybe we have to start by asking why a child isn’t learning. Does he understand what is expected? Is he being expected to do something that he is not yet capable of doing, or Is he being asked to do something he doesn’t want to do? Is he defiant because he feels the expectations are unfair? Answering these questions means trying to understand why a child is misbehaving and influences what we do about it.

The problem with punishment is that it doesn’t address the underlying reason for the behavior we are trying to change. If a child is having difficulty with self-control, the memory of having been punished is not going to help him control an impulsive expression of his feelings at the moment. If the behavior is defiance, punishment may serve to increase anger and then the defiant behavior. The idea that a child should be punished is usually an expression on our part of frustration about the behavior, and the feeling that it has to be corrected or responded to right then and there.

But teaching and learning is a process that takes time, and we may have to take a longer view when it comes to correcting behavior. Sometimes the process breaks down because it is too hard, or too inconvenient to see something through with a child when it is actually happening. It becomes easier just to let things slip by, or to threaten consequences that will be implemented later. Instead of teaching as we go along, we may let the behavior go too far and then try to correct it all at once.

Children often don’t like what we are expecting of them and their protests may be expressed in angry feelings toward us. We try to make sure that what we expect is realistic and fair. But we also have to be able to tolerate being called “the worst mom ever” when we stick to our expectations.

The young camp counselor referred to thinks homesickness may explain the behavior of her charges.

A Good Mother?

A divorced mother of two young children in a demanding professional career writes of being asked how she can excel at work and still be the best mother she could be. It is a question often asked of working mothers and pre-supposes the possibility of achieving a work-life balance. This mother believes that is not possible and that the question traps mother in a cycle of shame and guilt. She acknowledges that her work is her priority.

I find this admission compelling because the myth of the work-life balance is presented so often as the solution to the stress women are experiencing as they combine work and motherhood. The implication being that there is a way to balance the dual demands without short changing either, and the failure to do so is somehow the fault of women themselves.

In a series of interviews I did with highly successful professional women, what emerged was a point of view expressed currently by the woman referred to here. The recurring theme was that their professional work was over-riding. As one mother said, she patched together any kind of child-care she could find but no matter what, would attend the necessary meeting, or fulfill any necessary professional obligation no matter the obstacle.

On the other hand, many women fit into a different category. These are women who value their work and find it fulfilling but for whom children are their priority. Perhaps these are the women who struggle most with the life-work balance issue, who forego opportunities for career advancement, and some of whom elect to stop working if financially able. They may also be in professions that do not provide opportunities for lesser commitment to work, leaving less room for choice.

Of course, for many women choice is not an issue at all, their work outside the home determined by financial need. For such women, the work-life balance is a hypothetical question as they try to manage the pressure placed by the demands of both work and family life.

Clearly there is considerable diversity in the group of women called working mothers, a diversity that is relevant in thinking about how to provide any social support system of child care. It is also relevant in thinking about what constitutes good child care and what it means to be a “good” mother.

There appears to be less confidence in the answer to these questions than was true in earlier times and perhaps it is the work/motherhood conflict that contributes to the uncertainty. A value system that once was transmitted from one generation to the next appears to have been replaced by a search for new, and more “expert” authorities, a search enhanced by technology.

An extreme example of this shift can be found in the attention given to the books of Emily Oster, a health economist at Brown University. As an economist, Oster believes in and writes about data driven evidence as an answer to child-rearing questions. Understanding what the data suggests requires that she use her skills as an academic economist to evaluate which research papers are good, which evidence is strong and drawing conclusions.

The problem is that research findings tell you about the pros and cons of a question for a group, not for a specific individual. The questions raised are best answered by a parent about her child and herself, not by data extrapolated from a large population.

Tolerating uncertainty is a major challenge of being a parent. Perhaps the added uncertainty in this era is the worry about whether a working mother is a “good” mother.

About the Children

The old gender role division of labor has changed and with it the assumption that women would fill their old job description. While the world has opened for women, no satisfactory replacement for their former role has been found. The reality of that fact has been addressed largely by families left to fend for themselves as best they can.

The discussion, such as it is, tends to be as polarized as so much else in our political life. There are those who believe that mothers should be home caring for their children and that children are damaged in the absence of such care. Yet advocates for women cite all kinds of research studies to prove that children’s development is completely normal when mothers work.

But the issue is not normal development or damage. Rather a basic problem is the conflict of needs between mothers and children. Mothers have needs that may be economic, but also reflect the need/wish to be more than mothers. Children have needs that may be based on their dependency, but that also reflect the need/wish for care from their mothers. As in every relationship, the challenge is deciding whose needs will prevail at any given point where they conflict.

The conflict presents itself daily in the course of everyday life and has to be decided each time it arises. Is my child’s need or want the priority right now, or is mine? The real problem arises when a mother has no choice in how she responds to this question.  Mothers individually deal with the anxiety and guilt these questions provoke, questions that are not answered in the statistics offered about children’s development.

The acknowledgement of the conflict of needs that exists between women as mothers, and children, is fairly recent. For a significant number of years the role division between the sexes was taken for granted, as was the idea that women’s needs were met as wives and mothers. The modern women’s movement played a major role in bringing about change both in attitudes toward women’s needs, and in achieving greater opportunity in the workplace. Change in the economy has now moved that along.

Unfortunately, the early struggle for increased opportunity was focused on equality, the idea that women could function in the workplace just as men did. The issue of motherhood was either disregarded or dealt with unrealistically, so that the problems of child care and the needs of children were ignored. But the fact is that women have to be treated unequally in order to have equal opportunity in the workplace. What that means is that the changed role of women requires providing for the traditional jobs that had been filled by women, primarily the job of child care. Mothers need a support system in order to function in the workplace.

This basic problem has still not been solved, and the resistance to doing so remains. Part of the resistance lies in the fact that there is no solution that will duplicate a cherished belief in the family life that existed in the old division of labor. That role division placed too great a burden on both women and men. Nor is it the only good way of raising children. But in the changing attention given to different needs, the balance has shifted in important ways away from children.

As in dealing with the many societal changes that have taken place in modern times, we need to be creative in finding solutions that do not rest on the sacrifice of any one of the parties in basic human relationships – including children.

A Question of Values

Having been a stay-at-home mother for the early years of my children’s lives, my first return to work was on a very part-time basis. What I remember most vividly was the conflict that arose between my role as a mother and my professional work out of the home, despite my limited absence and responsible planning for my children during that time.

It seemed as though every school event involving my children, or parent/teacher conference, or school trip soliciting parental participation, was scheduled on the days I was at work. In addition, it felt as if conflicts between the children magnified to the point of requiring immediate resolution the moment I walked through the door upon my return from work.

I thought of this when reading an article pointing out that child-care proposals and workplace benefits all seem to involve leave for new mothers, or at best also fathers, in recognition of the requirements of infant care and other issues post childbirth. The point was that no thought is being given to the issues involved for parents of school-age children, such as not only those I remembered encountering but the need of both parents and children for parents to be involved in their children’s lives.

This points to what is missing in the ongoing discussion about the contemporary stresses of family life and the conflict between the requirements of the workplace and the problem of child-care. The issue creating stress is not just one of providing for the physical care of children when both parents are at work, as challenging as that is in itself. Nor is it only the matter of providing for after-school hours or school vacation times.

The question really being asked is what kind of parents do we want to be? What do we aspire to in our relationships with our children? And what kind of people would we like our children to be? These questions are implicit in many of the concerns expressed by parents, such as the amount of time spent by children in front of screens; computers, smart phones, and tech games, and their diminished interpersonal interaction both with peers and family members.

Also of concern, is the pressure parents feel to find the best education opportunities for their children and the pressure on children in turn to achieve academically to gain admission to the “best” schools. Preparation for economic success in life appears to have become an overriding goal in the responsibility parents feel for their children, particularly in light of the diminished time available to spend with them.

These issues are deeper than that of how to provide for the physical care of children. They come to the fore now that so many mothers are working outside of the home, changing the nature of family life. It is also mothers who are experiencing the conflicts involved as for both professional and economic reasons they move into new roles while still believing in, and trying to live up to a traditional definition of mother.

Feelings about who and what a mother is supposed to be run very deep, coming from our own experience as children as well as social, religious and historical constructs. Such feelings have been translated through research and theories about child development into concepts about what children need and the role of parents in meeting those needs. It is the legacy of these ideas that inform a woman’s aspirations as mother and are impossible to meet in the world as it is.

Fortunately, the increased involvement of men as fathers have brought them into the discussion. But the fact is, our current work world does not accommodate older theories about children and parents.

The question is, do we need to rethink our ideas about what children need and about our role as parents? Or is the goal to try to make the work world responsive to these needs?

The Power of No

A grandmother told an anecdote about herself as a young mother of a three-year-old waiting on the check-out line of a supermarket. Her son spotted a bag of potato chips he wanted his mother to buy. She then went into a lengthy explanation about why it was not a good idea, would spoil his appetite for lunch, was not healthy food, etc. etc. when an irritated voice behind her said, “Your mother says NO!”

This made me think of a dog trainer from the Problem Puppy School who came to help with our misbehaving dog. I explained that the dog did such things as opening the freezer door of the refrigerator and pulling out frozen meat to chew on, opening the door of the dryer in the laundry room and climbing inside, and other similar examples. The trainer responded by telling me how smart the dog was, how amazing to have such initiative, and so on.

In my frustration I identified with how parents must feel when seeking help for issues with their children I respond by explaining about children’s need to explore, to experiment, or their need for autonomy. At a moment of confrontation, when a child is defiant of our wishes, becoming an understanding parent is not the primary interest. Instead, the feeling involved leads to NO! Young children, who are not prone to reason, already know the power they have just saying no.

This in turn leads parents to feel that the child’s defiance, or disobedience has to be stopped immediately, and that the only two possibilities are his way or my way. The feeling is that if the child’s (mis)behavior does not take priority, the consequences will be unacceptable. Challenges to parental authority seem to call for an immediate response, and that response most often is to try to stop and/or correct the behavior rather than to try to address what is behind it. That sets the stage for a confrontation and power struggle.

Why do we think that the heat of emotion makes for a teachable moment – when often what we’re feeling is, “it’s time to teach him a lesson”, which has a very different meaning. The idea of responding to what is behind the child’s behavior instead of trying to stop or correct it, can mistakenly feel as though we are doing nothing about it.

Does that mean we’re supposed to let a child do whatever he wants? Of course not. But it does mean that if we understand where behavior is coming from, that understanding can give us some better idea of how to respond. Trying to be the boss at a moment of conflict is most often not productive.

It would be so nice if our children just did what we wanted them to do because we said so. But it doesn’t work that way. As they grow and develop, our children begin to spread their wings and assert themselves. And let’s not forget that in many ways we want that to happen. They have to be able to fly off on their own one day!

The grandmother in the anecdote had used explanation, in effect asking the child to use reason to give up what he wants. Young children are not ready to use reason. Instead, what may help at times of conflict is to respect their attempts at self-assertion not by doing what they want or proving we are boss, but by showing we know how hard it is not to get what you want.

To preserve the power of no, save it for a real emergency.