I’ve written before about the choices we give children and how it’s important that the adults who are caring for children remain mindful that some things aren’t choices. At their very best, parenting and caregiving are partnerships with children, but that doesn’t mean that the weight of responsibility for setting the tone and maintaining safe, respectful limits does not sit firmly on the shoulders of the adult. Raising and caring for a child with respect and kindness does not mean saying “Yes!” to all of their whims. It does not mean giving in and inviting a child to trample down the limits because you’re too exhausted to maintain them. At the very core of our relationships with children, we’re modeling the sort of interactions that will set the tone for the rest of their lives. That’s why even when we say we’ll never do things the way our parents did, we often hear their words flying from our mouths. Those things, deeply embedded in our subconscious, can become our defaults. Sometimes those things are wonderful and surprising, like when we find ourselves humming a lullaby we haven’t thought of in years. Other times, those things invite the slow leeching away of our power, as when we say to a misbehaving preschooler, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to call Daddy.” Teachers do the same thing when they use other teachers as the bad-cop or when they send children to the principal’s office or to the childcare center’s supervisor for offenses like “not listening.” There is a difference between using another adult as support or backup (as when you’ve told your toddler not to do something and they turn to the other adult with raised eyebrows and the other adult says, “I heard them say that is not okay to do,”) and actively giving away your power.
As adults who care for children, we’re often terrified of using the word “No.” We don’t want to be too restrictive, too mean. We don’t want to break children’s spirits or hinder their creativity. We don’t want to drive children away or shut them down. We must, above all else, bolster their self-esteem. Reports flood in from all philosophical corners on how we should treat and raise and value and respect children. It’s confusing! It’s often contradictory. It’s overwhelming. Add to that the dynamics of real families — families who spend the majority of time away from their children while working, parents who feel guilty, parents who are exhausted, children in groups that are too large and teachers who don’t have the appropriate support or training… Written down, it’s not a recipe for success. At the end of the day, however, it’s simple: you’re the adult, they’re the child, and they are looking to you for guidance, for discipline, and for limits.
Janet Lansbury writes beautifully about providing simple, connected responses to your child. She references this wonderful piece by Suchada Eickemeyer, “The Most Valuable Parenting Phrase After I Love You: “I won’t let you.”
“The absolute best benefit of owning the boundaries we set is that it helps build a relationship with our children. There is no question about where the rules are coming from.
“Sometimes the rules may seem burdensome, but children appreciate boundaries. They know they need someone bigger, wiser, and more experienced to keep them safe. When your child knows that you’re the one looking out for them, they trust you.”
I’ll let you in on a secret: “No” is not a four-letter word. It’s certainly fallen out of favor over the years, for a few reasons that are valid and for a few reasons that I believe are unfounded. No is a powerful word because it’s definitive. Some of us aren’t really No-People, are we? We’re concerned with being “liked”. We don’t want to come across as too dominant or too harsh. We’re self-conscious in our Nos and we often resort to the Maybes. I’ll let you in on another secret: Every four-year-old knows that a Maybe is really a No waiting to be unleashed (and sometimes they are simply unable to resist the temptation of pushing every possible button to bring that uncontrolled NO blasting to the surface). I would like to suggest that you not waste time on the Maybes. Not only are they too ambiguous for young children to understand, they’re not helping you to establish yourself as a center of power. As a true compassionate partner to the children in your life, be honest: say Yes! when you mean it, without reservation, and say No! when you mean it, without fear and hesitation.
Let’s embrace No for what it is: the bottom line.
I know a mom who is a wonderful, active, fully-present parent. She is an older parent, having given birth to her first and only child remarkably late in life. Before she become a mother, she devoted a decade to studying the art and science of parenting. Having competed for years in the financial world, she embraced parenting as the new challenge in her life and she was going to win at it. Then she met her child. Her child, who hadn’t read a single one of the parenting books and articles and didn’t realize how and when babies were expected to sleep! Her child, who came into the world with her own passionate opinions from day one. This mom knew, based on her research, that the word no was to be avoided in her interactions with her child. She certainly didn’t want to encourage an endlessly nay-saying toddler and one of her primary goals was to raise a child with a strong and independent spirit: a modern, free-thinking young woman! One day, this mom and her child arrived at our childcare center in a particularly frazzled state. It seems that when they were getting ready to leave home, a morning routine that involved opening the garage door before getting into the car, the little girl had raced out the garage door as it was slowly rising, heading straight for the road. The mom had raced after her, scattering her lunchbox, blanket, and cups behind, and grabbed her before she landed herself in traffic. Both were safe, one more ruffled than the other by the experience. The mom held the child and pointed to the road, explaining at length of the danger of running out onto it. The child, it bears mentioning, was at that time not quite two.
“I don’t know what I should do to make sure this doesn’t happen,” the mom said to the teacher, “I don’t think she understands yet about road safety.” There are clearly ways to avoid this scenario from the get-go. She could buckle her child into the car before opening the garage door, for one. They could load their things into the car and then hold hands as the door rises. She could, she suggested, have her husband help her get the child and the belongings loaded up every morning. Listening and assessing, the teacher made a bold suggestion: “Did you tell her “NO,” she asked. The mom flinched. “I didn’t want to scare her,” she said.
Let’s step back for a moment and view this scenario through a wider lens. The mom in question was raised in a much more authoritarian time. She heard plenty of No. And Because I Said So. She was not far removed from a Children-Should-Be-Seen-and-Not-Heard generation. In fact, she was expected to behave in just that way at her grandparents’ home. She is highly sensitive to raising her child in a different way, in these different times. I think it is safe to say, however, that she may have gone a bit too far.
Being authoritative means saying, “No. Stop. I won’t let you. That’s not safe.” It means being consistent and clear in the limits you’ve established. It doesn’t scare your child and it doesn’t scar them either. It’s really a gift to your child because it makes them feel safe. We live in a world of limits, rules, and laws designed to keep us safe. When a police officer pulls you over for speeding, he or she is not likely to back down when you throw yourself on the ground and scream and cry. You can throw a fit, but the limit still exists and they will continue to enforce it. There is rarely a question of their power and authority. You should feel the same weight of responsibility and confidence in what’s reasonable as a parent or caregiver of young children.
Holding close your power does not mean saying NO for little things, because that strips you of authority just as surely as not saying it at all. NO is not be used on auto-pilot. It’s not be used to break your child’s spirit or to restrict their freedom. NO means that you’re there — you’re connected powerfully to this child and to the situation at hand, and you’re not going to let your limits be breached.
Consistent Parenting Advice says of Authoritative Parenting:
“Children nowadays seem to be expected to know, understand and formulate answers to questions that are not for them to make – often young children respond with tantrums to these questions simply because they are frustrated by the amount of power they are expected to hold.”
The adults need to be adults so that children can freely and safely be children. This is kind and it is firm. It is direct and it is reassuring.
As a teacher, caregiver, and adult, my best advice to you if you feel that you waver a bit on the limits you’ve set for your child is to be reflective.
- Consider the limits. They should be reasonable and they should be clear. The limits we want to establish are based on commonsense, not on our moods or the tides or the wind. I set the limit in my classroom, for example, that we sit down to eat and drink. Always. Every time. That’s safe. When the toddlers stand up and walk away with their cup or cracker, I say, “I won’t let you walk and drink. It’s not safe. Please sit down.” If they want to make it a game and run away with the item, I said calmly, “I see that you’re all done drinking and you’re ready to run. I’m going to hold your cup for you.” If a child asks you why something is a limit, you should be able to articulate it. If you can’t, it may not be reasonable.
- Consider the true source of your hesitation. Some parents (and caregivers and teachers!) have a genuine fear that their child won’t LIKE them if they’re too firm. Your child may not like the limit. They may not agree with the limit. They may HATE the limit. But your child loves you and, even beyond that, they need you: they need you to be trustworthy, consistent, and clear.
- Consider and sit with your guilt. Your baggage is generally about other things, not the limit in question. Give yourself this time to reflect on what you’re truly feeling and what you truly owe your child. Whatever other hurts, fears, and distance has played out in their young life, your child deserves clear and consistent limits. Be conscious of this in the face of their tantrums and tests. Your job is to keep the issue on-task: this isn’t about the hurt feelings or missed opportunities of six months ago, this is about what is going on right now.
Hold close your power. Look the child in the eye. Don’t raise your voice, but instead lower your tone. When I’m feeling a little weak in the knees, I sometimes remind myself and the child in question (whether a toddler or a ten-year-old), “I’m serious. This is serious,” to bring myself back to center. Here we are, in it together. I don’t need to bring in someone stronger than myself, to make them the bad guy, because there is no bad guy here: there’s just this child and I, engaged in a learning experience together. Make no mistake about it: enforcing limits with children is not for the weak of heart. You will have to call on a wellspring of confidence, compassion, and kindness. That’s where your power truly lies.