Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Say no and mean it

I am a parent of two well-mannered, respectful and attentive children. Of course, like most kids, mine don’t always get along with each other or listen to what I say or do what I ask them to quite when or how I ask them to do it but, for all that it drives me up a wall when they’re like that, I understand that parenting is all about process, and my relationship with them is dynamic. They are growing and learning and developing skills and habits that will serve them well later on. I am proud of their growth, and I am confident that they will both become quality people in their own, individual way.

I have confirmed that, if I would occasion it, I as the parent must be the both the standard and the example of what such growth looks like. I must be the teacher, the arbiter, the model and, without being so overtly, the director of my children’s learning. It is work to do this well and none of us does it perfectly. Yet, I stand by the belief that, if we would have our children become people of quality, with an appropriate understanding of self and an ability to examine with consideration their behavior and their choices, then we must do so consciously. If we are what we eat, then surely our children will be what they are parented to be. Children who are left simply to be may enjoy a youth free from the imagined burdens of responsibility, but I would argue that they do so at incredible risk to their safety and at a not inconsiderable cost to their ability to make good decisions on their own.

One of the most important ways in which parents can--indeed, must--contribute to the wellbeing of their children is to provide clear, consistent boundaries that both protect them from grievous harm and help them interact well interpersonally. Number one on the “how to” list of contributions involves just a single word: No. Judiciously and uniformly used, this small word guides children to an understanding of what is safe, what is socially acceptable and, when used with its antonym, offers solutions and possibilities for children to use as a means to think critically and independently about their world. It must be recognized, however, that words are powerful and, if they are wielded indifferently, without concern for their effect, they can create more problems than they solve.

If you tell a child no, as a parent you are using your position of experienced authority (a position that your children want to accept) to instruct them. If you throw the word around nonchalantly (and most especially if you don’t stand by it once you’ve used it), at least two consequences follow naturally: First, the child will no longer accept your decisions as valid on their face, and second, your position as experienced authority figure will be lessened. Either of these means you must work harder as a parent to instruct your children. Both of them together create a relationship between you and your children that is at best adversarial, and that can very easily become treasonous.

I suspect that many parents hesitate to enforce their disapproval either because they are not truly convinced that it is required or because they worry that doing so will engender bitterness (i.e. a fit), conflict (i.e. a shouting match) or resentment of them as individuals, but neither of these is a compelling reason to abandon the decision once it has been made. You are the parent. It is your right (and, indeed, your responsibility) to make decisions on behalf of your children. Show confidence and judicious consideration in making them, and do so not out of fear, but out of confidence that you are directing your children to become wonderful people. If it means saying no, say it, and have the resolve to stand by your choice. Your children, ultimately, will thank you for it.

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