When I tell my 4-year-old something like, “Don’t ram the skateboard into your little brother,” or “No, I don’t want the cushions off the couch,” he sticks out his bottom lip and accuses me of being mean. On his most diplomatic days, he tells me he doesn’t like my words. Yup, he’s offended by my parenting, which is total bs because I’ve always been conscious of disciplining in gentle, respectful ways.
I started out four years ago, clinging to the idealistic philosophy of attachment parenting. What new mom doesn’t want to feel empowered to soothe her baby’s every upset? Attachment parenting encourages co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and letting your child run your life. (Just kidding. Kind of.) In this mindset, the cry of a baby or toddler signals distress that a parent should fix.
This was all warm, fuzzy, and beautiful until I became so drained and lost in parenting this way. I was bitter even, because—damn—I wanted to know that I still existed on my own when a child wasn’t attached, but I wasn’t sure I did. I wanted to feel free to leave the bed when I woke up without army-crawling with crossed fingers, hoping my little parasite of a toddler wouldn’t sense my absence and need a nipple stat! I wanted to fill my son’s needs, but I wanted to care about mine too. They were all sacrificed in the name of motherhood.
As time went on, I started to value having more boundaries. Mother-led weaning and sleep training, amen! With my changing ideals, I had to embrace more crying, but it wasn’t easy. I had to reprogram the way I thought about and reacted to my children’s tears. I value being a firm parent, one who has high expectations of her children, but damn, that means there are a lot of times my kid’s not happy, and his unhappiness kind of sucks.
Sometimes I’m tempted to appease him just so I don’t have to deal with his shit. But I know that dealing with his shit (or rather, having him deal with his own) is actually a crucial part of parenting. I never want my children to suffer from unnecessary upset, and I always want to be available to love and comfort, but surely, there is actually a place for crying.
I’ve learned to see crying as a response that is not only normal, but also sometimes therapeutic on its own. This past summer, my 3-year-old was running along the sidewalk and tripped. To console his cries, I offered him ice, a Band-Aid, or animal crackers. He shook his head and said, “No, I just want to cry.” Tears are healing, and studies show they release depressants from the body, reduce stress, and improve mood. Crying isn’t just a normal response to physical pain, but to disappointment, frustration, and anger.
Knowing this, I feel less inclined to rescue him from his negative feelings. Of course I’m going to support and comfort him in sadness and other upsets, but I’m no longer going to let his disappointment or potential outburst stop me from enforcing a rule, redirecting behavior, or stating a boundary. I no longer feel the kindest thing to do is protect him from negative feelings. Instead, it is to give him opportunities to cope and work through them.
I tell him no and accept his emotional response because permissiveness doesn’t make for a happy kid or a healthy relationship. Children need to know that their parents are true leaders. There are many times he resists this. I’ve even been called a Mean Mommy, but I know he ultimately benefits from a feeling of security. He might think he wants free reign, but really, he wants to trust that I’ll keep him in bounds.
Speaking of being in charge, respecting my son does not mean making him my equal. I allow him to make decisions, but from the reasonable choices I offer. He doesn’t choose what time to go to bed, but he chooses if he wants to read one book or two. He doesn’t decide what we are eating for dinner (lollipops!), but he can choose how much he consumes. He doesn’t decide when we leave the park, but he chooses if he wants to hold me hand or not. I used give my child too much power in the name of respect. There used to be a construction site right by our playground. He wanted to watch it endlessly, and I actually felt bad for eventually making him leave. Who was I to say no?
My children cry when I tell them no. No, you can’t break the crayons. No, I won’t prepare you a snack after I just served you lunch. No, you may not watch another episode. However, allowing them to cry expresses my acceptance of their feelings, more so than bending the rules or turning a blind eye to keep them endlessly happy. I used to confuse empathetic parenting with keeping my kids from experience negative feelings. Now I know empathetic parenting is understanding their responses—not rescuing them or punishing them, just kind of saying, “You’re mad the TV is off. I get it. We can watch more tomorrow.”
I used to hesitate in doing this because I thought welcoming the expression of all feelings meant needing to endure meltdowns and tantrums, but now I know part of setting boundaries is saying, “You’re upset. It’s OK to scream, but you must do it in your room or outside. When you get done, we can talk and hug.” I want my son to accept his feelings, but I won’t allow myself to be his punching bag, “You can be grumpy, but you may not talk to me with an attitude.”
Understanding why my son is doing something is different than making it acceptable. As much as it’s my job to love and care for him, it’s also my job to teach him appropriate ways to behave and deal with his emotions. Not to mention, children can use emotions to manipulate. By showing him I’m comfortable with his tears and upsets, I take away his power to manipulate.
I am now comfortable with saying no, because there were plenty of times I didn’t say it soon enough, and then I ended up really losing my shit. For instance, just yesterday he wanted me to find a specific shirt and his soccer socks. (I’m not organized enough for these requests!) He also wanted to wear his cleats and shin guards. I was already feeling frazzled by my morning duties and knew my attempt to make him happy would put me over the edge. I told myself, “Don’t try just to end up yelling and feeling overwhelmed. Just say no.”
I enjoy saying yes to my son as often as possible but only when I’m truly comfortable with it. I now say no because I want to communicate authentically. I value authenticity over niceness, and I want him to do the same. By respecting myself through instilling boundaries, he learns consideration and also how to respect himself. We are our children’s models.
I used to want my son to always be happy, but now I know his struggles are often opportunities for growth and learning. When I stand back (and firm), I communicate trust, and that’s what respectful parenting is really about. I say no because I care about his well-being as well as mine.