The question I raised last week about finding the balance between freedom and authority seems to strike a chord for many parents. When it comes right down to the everyday issues that arise with children, the answer to “where do you draw the line?” can become quite murky. And parents struggle with this question.
Some examples that mothers often raise: “My daughter has very strong opinions about her clothes and wants to choose what she will wear. I want to give her a choice but she insists on wearing a sleeveless summer dress in the middle of winter and refuses to get dressed in anything else.”
Or another favorite: “My son has very definite food preferences and won’t eat what I make for dinner if it isn’t his choice. He wants me to make something else for him.” Or yet another example: “My son wants a video game that other children have but I don’t think is appropriate. It’s an ongoing battle, and I’m not sure whether I should get it for him or not.”
These may seem simply like examples of the conflict between what a mother wants and what her child wants: the familiar sounding, “He wants his own way.” But as parents, we often feel conflicted within ourselves about whether we should be giving our children the freedom to make choices, or should be asserting our authority as parents in ending these conflicts. In other words, we are not sure where to draw the line between freedom for our children and our authority as their parents.
Perhaps our difficulty in finding the answer lies in the question itself. Drawing the line sounds too much like drawing a line in the sand. “Don’t cross that line or else……” (that’s when the Chinese mother’s methods begin to rear their ugly heads.) Asserting authority seems to suggest a big stick, or dire consequences. And that is just what intensifies the conflict. As one mom told me, she knows she is having trouble with the authority side. So the question of finding the right balance between freedom and authority raises another question: Is there another way to assert authority besides threatening with a big stick?
Part of our problem comes from thinking there is a right answer to every given situation. Should I let my daughter wear her summer dress to school? Should I make a different dish for my son? Should I buy the video game my child wants? If we’re thinking of finding the right balance, instead of the right answer, that means using judgment.
Of course as parents we are responsible for our children’s health and welfare. That covers summer dresses in winter and video games we deem inappropriate. As far as a different meal at dinner time goes, that depends on how a mom feels about operating a restaurant with a menu. The point is, some things are more clear cut than others, but we shouldn’t get mixed up about things that are real choices and those that are our responsibility as parents.
At times parents are clear that there are things children should not be deciding for themselves, but want to avoid the conflict that ensues when either they, or their children, dig in their heels. In other words, we give up and take the path of least resistance, which turns out to be the long way home in the end. But why does a difference of opinion about what to wear turn into such a conflict?
This brings us back to how do we as parents stay in charge? Part of the answer lies in feeling clear within ourselves that we are in charge. It’s amazing how that feeling of confidence gets communicated to our children in our voice and manner without our sounding like a dictator or making threats.
But, just as important, when we feel confident about our expectations as parents, we can be much more open to hearing our children’s point of view. I mean hearing, not capitulating to their point of view. What is so special about that summer dress? Maybe we can find that something special for winter. I’m sorry you didn’t like tonight’s dinner. What would you like tomorrow? We can help our children feel they are being considered, even when they don’t get what they want. And we can be sympathetic rather than defiant about not getting the video that some other children have.
Perhaps that line we’re talking about is a wavy line that allows for some give and take. A line, where as the ones in charge, we’re not too worried about whether it is being crossed.