Taking the Emotional Charge Out of Parental Authority

All of us have to set limits as parents--it’s one of our jobs--and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t done it pretty heavy-handedly at times. That happens mostly when we’re stressed out (“No, you can’t buy another toy, and if you ask me one more time, I’ll never shop with you again,”), when we’re scared (“You get off that ladder right now!”), or when we’re embarrassed about what others may think (“Don’t let me every hear that word come out of your moth again!”). Yet the force behind a “no” does not have to be strong emotion to make if effective.

It’s been very helpful to me to hold out the goal of wielding my parental authority without that emotional baggage, of communicating my love even as I set a limit. In thinking about this issue, I’ve been noticing even more subtle variations on that theme.

I have a friend who is an excellent parent, who tries very hard to not always put her convenience before her child’s or stifle her child’s initiative. Evidently she had decided that “no” was a bad word. I realized this when her daughter asked a question to which “no” was the obvious answer (i.e., “Can I do something that I know we’ve agreed is off limits?”). My friend responded by looking sorrowfully at her and saying nothing at all. I cringed. Her attempt to avoid the pitfalls of arbitrary parental limitations had boomeranged--coming back in the form of a non-verbal guilt trip.

My mother-in-law is also excellent with children--genuinely enjoying them, pretty relaxed around a variety of feelings, without lots of prohibitions. One day at the dinner table, though, she decided to draw the line at dropping silverware on the floor and said “no” to my year-old son in a pretend-angry tone of voice. He heard the new tone, saw her laughing behind her attempt to look stern, smiled back; and dropped something else. That particular “no” didn’t seem to be hurtful, but it certainly didn’t have any effect and would have been a pretty confusing mixed message if she had persisted.

Neither my friend’s try at eliminating “no’s” from her vocabulary, nor my mother-in-law’s attempt to sound angry in order to show that she was serious turned out to be a clean method of communication. And certainly the harsh “no’s” that are rooted in our stress, fear, or anger are hard on our children (though if they’re confident that we love them, they’re wonderfully resilient and forgiving of our bad tempers). What’s hopeful to me is how often a limit or a “no” can be delivered in such a way that it’s pure, undistressed and undistressing information.

If I’m not angry, and if I’m confident that I’m not hurting my child, my “no’s” can come out pretty clean, without the confusing emotional overlay of a different look or unusual tone of voice. “No, we’re not going to do that now; we need to do x.” “No, sweetie, I’m not going to let you turn your glass of milk upside down.” “no, you can’t put your finger in the baby’s eye.” Children can work with this type of limit-setting pretty easily in lots of cases.

When the limits are in areas where the child’s feelings are high, even the most reasonable ones can bring forth storms of anger or disappointment. But if we stay clear and loving, if we can just listen and acknowledge those feelings, while still maintaining our position, we’ll be of great help to our children in their ability to handle such limits in the future.