Restriction and Trust

One of our constant challenges as parents is to judge when to try to restrict our children's access to things that are bad for them (food, TV, role models, etc.) and when to trust that they can make their own choices without irreparable harm. We would probably all agree that we have to restrict some times and trust others. But what about the vast swamp of gray in between? In the midst of all that gray ooze, I've been finding bits of solid ground.

If the restriction feels to rigid and unreasonable to a child, he may figure out other ways of getting access without us. I've watched it happen. My child knows that I won't let him watch a certain violence-laced TV show that all his peers are talking about. So--he works out a way to visit a friend who's allowed to watch it. My well-intentioned strategy has cost me (and him) on at least three fronts. He has gotten access to what I was trying to protect him from. I wasn't there to help him interpret and understand what he saw. And, perhaps most important, he now sees me, to some increased extent, as an opponent rather than an ally in his struggle to make sense of the whole issue. What a Pyrrhic moral victory! In retrospect, faced with his passionate interest in that show, it would probably have made more sense to sit down and watch it with him, to talk about what he thought and what I didn't like--then plan a policy around it together.

It's also important to acknowledge that restricting access to something that somebody wants will not be all right with them if they have any spunk. We can expect protest. So it helps to think far enough ahead to anticipate the type of reaction that a restriction will bring, and accept it matter-of-factly. It goes best when I can handle tears, storms and passionate objections without either getting angry and blaming the child, or letting the intensity of the objection confuse me about the logic or importance of the restriction.

I have a vivid memory of an end-of-the-year picnic of a batch of pre-schoolers and grown-ups. Everybody was having a great time, and the children were excited about the picnic-type goodies, especially several huge bags of cheese curls. I watched child after child consume incredible quantities of cheese curls until finally restricted ("That's enough, dear. Let's eat something else that makes your body grow."). At the same time I watched adult after adult, myself included, doing just the same thing. But nobody stepped in to restrict us. If someone had said, "That's enough now, Pamela," they would actually have been doing me a favor. I doubt, however, if I would have thanked them. I don't know if embarrassment, guilt, humiliation or anger would have dominated, but my response certainly would not have been emotion-free. No more are our children likely to thank us for making restrictions "for their own good."

To be on our children's side, we don't have to be "nice" to them. We don't have to do what they want all the time. But just standing on a pedestal of superior adult understanding and handing down laws limits our leverage. It may control what they do, but not what they think or what they love. To be really effective, we have to be able to see enough through their eyes to know the yearning for that particular type of candy, to understand the allure of that special toy. If they can't tell that we care at all about things that they care for so deeply, then it's hard to see us as allies. If we can find a way to walk in their shoes with them, with our accumulated experience and judgment in hand, then we have real leverage.