Too tired to set limits with your children? Well, the short-term gain (not having to deal with tantrums) is likely setting you up for long-term pain!
It’s understandable that sometimes parents just want some peace and quiet whenever they can get it, and therefore will let some of their children’s poor behaviours slide, or give in to whatever demands their children make of them in order to get some of that highly sought after quiet time. After all, we live in a hectic, fast-paced world, a world which leaves us precious little time to enjoy some well-deserved rest and relaxation, so it’s understandable that many parents will give in to their children’s whining in order to avoid a potential all-out tantrum.
A problem with that approach – often called permissive parenting – is of course the message it sends to your children – that negative behaviour (whining, crying, yelling, swearing) will get them a desired outcome. Of course, the rest of the world doesn’t work that way, so once they come to developing peer relationships and go to school, they may have great difficulty in adjusting. Without the ability to self-regulate, these children will experience great frustrations – which they may take out on the one that lets them – their permissive parent. Another big problem is that while it may be easier to just stand idly by and let your child watch more cartoons, play more video games, stay up late, or eat more junk food now, it may be more difficult to stand by and watch when, as they become teenagers, they began to stay out very late partying or not going to school. While not impossible to set down household rules at that time, it’s not going to be easy – after all, if the teen has never had any rules to follow, will he or she suddenly start taking such newly instituted rules seriously? Another problem with permissive parenting is it’s really not what children want. Children want – and need – to be given limits. After all, that tells them that their caregiver actually cares about them. When a child doesn’t trust that parents will enforce rules that keep the child healthy and safe (“Ok, I guess you don’t have to wear your bike helmet if it makes you that unhappy”) the child disrespects the parent and becomes more challenging, looking for limits (and proof that he or she is actually loved.) When a child mistreats the parent, naturally the parent gets angry and resentful and is less nurturing to the child. So setting limits, as difficult as that may be with the child ready to start a tantrum, is exactly what is needed.
Having said that, setting overly-rigid limits is a problem too. The opposite of permissive parenting is authoritarian parenting, and it too will lead to a poorly-adjusted child and teen. Sometimes the reasons for being an authoritarian parent is the same – the parent is too tired to actually have any sort of dialogue with their child, so imposes very strict rules that need to be followed, and there is no room for debate about these rules. While permissive parenting leads to difficulties in self-regulating for a child, so too does authoritarian parenting. Harsh limits trigger a resistance to taking responsibility for themselves. For a child, there is no internal tool more valuable than self-discipline, but it develops from the internalization of loving limits, not from an external control.
Research actually shows that authoritarian parenting produces kids with lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression and anger, who behave worse than other kids. Children of authoritarian parents may even become bullies at school, because they’ve learned that power and control is the way to get things done and to get things they want. A great irony to authoritarian parenting is that it leads to even more regular punitive parenting – because these kids tend to behave worse, they get punished more, so a vicious cycle is created! And just like permissive parents – who almost begin to fear their children’s demands, authoritarian parents are also not particularly happy parents. Parents who relate punitively to their kids have to cut off their natural empathy for their child, which makes the relationship less satisfying to them. Parenting also becomes much harder for these parents because their kids lose interest in pleasing them and become much more difficult to manage. So ultimately strict parenting makes for unhappy parents.
So what’s the ideal parenting approach – a middle group between permissive and authoritarian parenting
Parenting with empathy.
Research shows that children develop optimally when we set limits as necessary, but do so with empathy. Empathy makes your limit more palatable to your child, so he or she doesn’t resist it as much. That’s what allows these children to internalize it. Kids need appropriate limits, but it’s how you do it that counts.
Setting limits with empathy means that you:
•Start with a strong, supportive connection with your child so they know you’re on their side – that you care about both their emotional and physical safety and will always be there when they need you.
•See it from their point of view and offer genuine empathy that they can feel, while setting the limit. The child needs to understand that the reason you are setting and enforcing a limit is that you care.
•Resist the temptation to be punitive in any way. Setting the limit teaches the lesson. Anything more backfires. If the only reason to set a limit is to show that you are in charge, then it’s sending the wrong message.
•See your child’s life from their point of view and only set the limits you really need to set, so that their life is more about connection and discovery than about limits and frustration.
Of course there are times when it is appropriate to be permissive. Saying “no” too often undermines your relationship. This may mean occasionally easing the rules, and framing as an infrequent treat they get i.e. sometimes they can have a little more screen time than usual, or ice cream after dinner. Such “treats” should remain the exception, not the norm. Alternatively, some rules should always remain strict – such as rules intended to keep your child safe. Wearing a helmet while bicycling or sitting in the back seat until a child is the appropriate age and weight to sit up front are non-negotiable.
Parenting is the toughest job in the world, but it is also the most rewarding. Being a parent who has empathy towards their child may not be as easy as giving in or maintaining rigid boundaries, but the short-term pains will definitely lead to long-term gains – a strong, loving bond you will share with your children forever.
Gary Thandi, MSW RSW, is the Executive Director of Genesis Family Empowerment Society, a non-profit agency providing counselling and support services to families in Metro Vancouver. For more information on Genesis, please visit the website at www.genesisfamilyempowerment.com.