Actually, parenting experts confirm that rules give children a sense of security. Certainly, knowing about limits, both of their own and others’, helps children feel safe. Studies show that kids who grow up without concrete rules regarding acceptable behavior feel out of control. They demonstrate a desire for boundaries by “pushing the envelope” longing for others to push back. While I knew children like this when I was growing up, and while I knew their lack of limits was not really a good thing, I was still jealous. The introduction of wild kids into the adult world of anything goes was a source of envy to me. They could freely take off to play with friends without accountability to any adult, they could wear the same outfit day after day without a bath or laundry requirement, and they could say whatever they wanted on the playground without guilt as a form of self-monitoring. As adults, we call this neglect. As a child, I called this freedom.
My parents divorced when I was twelve. My sister Amy and I lived with our father; therefore, he was the enforcer. He made sure that conformity was easier than rebelliousness. Punishment for infractions was swift and sure. A stern face with gritted teeth would “encourage” my quick and utter compliance whenever I felt the desire to push his envelope; he would have that envelope signed, sealed, and delivered back to me faster than I could say, “Oh yeah? Make me!” Whenever we protested his rules, he would tell us about how things would be when we were adults. I realize now, most of these assurances about “Someday...” were not just ways to pacify us; they were complete and utter fabrications! They include:When you are an adult, you’ll get to be in charge.
I was told this many times while growing up. It is not true! The instant your first child comes into your life, he or she runs the show. Your eating schedule, sleeping schedule, and even your bathroom schedule all revolve around that baby’s own timetable. Initially, the elation over that sweet little spirit makes this life upset a welcome change. It is exciting to become a new parent, but I find it funny that I used to think caring for a baby was hard. Oh how naïve I was! “Hard” is cleaning up after a two year old, getting a youngster to stay on his or her bed, and keeping track of a teenager’s hectic schedule.
When you are the grown up, you can come and go as you please.
This is partially true. I technically can go anywhere I please; however, the limits of time, money, and responsibility were never mentioned when I was a kid. Whenever I complained about my lack of independence, my father dangled future freedom in front of me like a carrot. Adult obligations snatched that carrot away faster than a hungry bunny.
When you are an adult, you can eat whatever you want.
Again, a partial truth. My dad always worried about our health. Amy and I felt so limited and deprived. While our friends were consuming mass quantities of fast food and candy, we were “forced” to eat things like wheat bread, low-sugar cereals, limited junk food and nonfat milk. His abhorrence of childhood obesity, clogged arteries, and high cholesterol were, in my young mind, more ways he was trying to dilute my independence. As an adult, I am grateful for his restrictions. Whether absorbed with a smile or not, his teachings did have the long-term affect he desired: I try to eat healthy and encourage my children to do the same. Food choices for myself are regulated not by my dad anymore but by my own fear of an oversized fanny, cancer, and heart disease.
As the grown up, you’ll be able to do whatever you want.
For a short time in my life, I could sleep until whenever, eat whatever, and watch anything. It wasn’t really as much fun as I had always hoped. The sad truth became obvious with the recognition of the general negative effects of laziness. Then I had children. I don’t live for myself anymore; I live for them. Sometimes I dream about what it would be like to sleep until noon, eat only junk food, and watch TV all day but on those rare opportunities when I could do those things, I choose not to. Twice a year, my husband takes the kids out of town and gives me a weekend alone. What do I do with that time? I work like a madwoman! I clean, scrub, organize, and hardly rest at all for fear of losing any of those precious, uninterrupted moments. Why waste time sleeping when I don’t have to be patient and I can be as crabby as I want? Now that’s freedom!
I thought my dad was a tyrant but I have learned:Kids can be tyrants, too.
Younger kids go through phases where rules are very important—not self-conformance to rules, but others’ obedience to them. At dinner one Sunday, my nine-year-old daughter was describing to the family how she had become ill at church and had to run to the bathroom to be sick. Her brother promptly scolded, “You know you’re not supposed to run in the halls at church.” His idea that rules should be obeyed no matter what was interesting because this concept conflicted with his own choices regarding rules and obedience.
In the eyes of my children, I can be a tyrant.
“You never let me do anything!” was my five-year-old daughter’s response when I walked in just in time to find her at one end of her teeter-totter, ready to jump. On the other end, she had carefully placed her one-month-old baby brother! In her mind, I was stifling her fun.
My rules regarding dangerous activities irritate my son, too. After yet another reminder about the safety of seatbelts and helmets, he said in frustration, “You make our lives boring. You’re too concerned about us.” He wouldn’t admit that my overt concern has saved him a cracked skull and many other injuries.
Kids don’t think that way. A restriction on their choices is often seen as an attempt to control. I explain the reasons behind the rules and tell my kids that I am just encouraging them to make good choices, but they know better. I have ways to force them to comply. Children who choose not to wear a helmet do not get to ride a bike. Those who don’t ask permission before taking off to a friend’s will stay inside the house for the next few days.
Relinquishing control is a natural stage of life.
My oldest daughter will soon be fourteen. I am excited to see her reach this milestone and become an official teenager, but I am nervous that control over her decisions is slipping away from me. I know she will make her own mistakes, as she always has, but now they are potentially bigger and have more impact. I know these mistakes are necessary for her growth and development. She will learn, as we all have, that no one is perfect—but we should try to be.
As a family, we are to strive for perfection.
After being told that there was to be no fighting, yelling or running around at a school event, my daughter (then age eight) said, “We’re not a perfect family you know.” She’s right. We are not a perfect family. I am not a perfect parent. But thanks to a “tyrant” father who loved me enough to set solid boundaries, teach correct principles, and who encouraged me to make good choices, my children have a mother who will do the same for them. My hope is that as adults, they will respect their freedom, not wield their independence as a weapon against the world.
Agency isn’t an open-ended gift. True agency comes with the responsibility to use it wisely. We all must obey rules, even as adults. If we don’t, society will make sure that we do. Punishment will be swift and sure. A citation, fine, jail time, or all three will help us learn to conform to society’s rules of conduct. So it’s best to start learning early. When taught with love and kindness, rules and restrictions are a blessing. I am grateful for my tyrant father and grin to myself when my kids grumble just like I did; it means I am doing my job as a parent. Hopefully they’ll be grateful for my tyranny someday too.