The vast majority of parents that I meet in my clinical practice are lovely people. They care deeply for their children, and they are trying hard to parent them well. They are seeking help, not because they are bad parents, but because they are good parents trying to be better. On the one hand, it is certainly true what folks say: “Parenting is not for wimps.” On the other, there are some simple, overarching principles that should make it easier. Well, perhaps not easier, but at least clearer.
During a recent session, one of my clients, whose parents had the habit of calling me for advice between monthly sessions, commented,
I think it’s kind of lame that my parents can’t figure out what to do on their own. It’s like they need your permission to say no. Annie, age 12
I have known Annie for several years. She came to therapy initially when she was in 4th grade because of moodiness and temper tantrums. At the time, Mom and Dad talked about “walking on egg shells because every little thing could set her off.” After about 6 months of family therapy, a decision was made to pursue a medication trial. Mom and Dad were making positive changes in their parenting and Annie’s behavior was improving, but her mood remained predominantly sad and irritable. She responded very well to an antidepressant which she took for about three years, during the course of a fairly early puberty. At the time Annie made the comment above, she was doing so well that I had begun to see her on a monthly basis while she was being weaned off the medication. Mom and Dad were understandably nervous about what would happen with Annie’s mood as the medication tapered down and had begun calling me to seek reassurance about various parenting dilemmas.
Over time, I noticed that Annie’s parents were calling about two kinds of dilemmas. Most often, they were very clear about what they thought was the right thing to do but were concerned about Annie’s reactions. For example, they did not think that it was safe for Annie to go alone into the city by train to see a classmate, yet they were afraid she would have a meltdown if they told her no.
The other type of parenting challenge that prompted calls to me involved deciding what issues were “important enough” to jeopardize family harmony. For example, Mom and Dad believed it was time to for Annie to take responsibility for some household chores but weren’t sure it was worth the trouble this would cause.
As a psychologist, it is not my role to tell people what to do. My job is to help people develop the skills and understanding they need in order to make good decisions themselves. For this reason, I decided to offer Annie’s parents a simple guideline for making the tough parenting calls. It goes like this:
Safety takes precedence over everything. After safety comes your relationship with your child. After safety and your relationship comes everything else.
This algorithm can help parents make many of those tough calls. In the first example above, Annie’s parents were clear that their 12 year old daughter taking the train into the city alone was unsafe. The algorithm is clear: safety takes precedence over the relationship. This means that even if Annie will be really, really, really, really angry at Mom and Dad for saying no, saying no is still the better parenting decision. Clearer, not easier.
The second example above, the choice between risking a battle by expecting Annie to complete chores or keeping the peace by allowing her not to help out around the house is much more nuanced. At first glance, it may seem that the algorithm dictates that the better parenting decision is to keep the peace because it protects the relationship. But, think about that. Does it really help the relationship if Mom and Dad continue to do all the work around the house themselves? Wouldn’t that option run the risk of creating resentment in Annie’s parents? Wouldn’t the relationship be better served if Annie and her parents worked together to develop expectations that everyone could accept? After all, relationships are two-way (at least!) streets. It is important to think about the relationship part of the algorithm from both (or all) perspectives.
Many parents find this algorithm a useful tool, one that helps them develop greater clarity as they do this, the toughest of jobs. Clarity of a decision, of course, does not always equal easiness. Clarity does, however, make it easier for parents to stand by their well-reasoned decisions in the face of resistance and anger from their child. Even the most contrary of kids will have a hard time arguing against decisions that are honestly grounded in real concerns about safety. Similarly, it is hard for most children to state with any sincerity that they do not care about their relationship with their parents.
Here are another couple of examples of basing parenting decisions on the algorithm above:
- Annie has been begging her parents for weeks to allow her to paint her room a very deep shade of purple. Mom dislikes the color and worries it will make her room look like a cave. Dad anticipates the walls requiring five coats of paint. Annie thinks she will like the “cozy” feel of the dark walls and has offered to give up two entire weekends of activities to help. She complains that her parents want too much control over her and since it’s her room, she should be the one to decorate it. If you were Annie’s parent, what would you do?
Bedroom wall color, in my opinion, falls clearly into the category of “Everything Else.” I don’t want to live inside an eggplant, but that’s just me. Apparently, Annie does. If you are the type of parent who could allow Annie to make this choice herself and truly let it go, then, for you, bedroom wall color is indeed “Everything Else,” and the parent-child relationship is preserved. If, however, allowing Annie to paint her room like a cave will cause you to feel resentful over time, then bedroom wall color becomes a threat to the relationship. In this case, it would be really important to give Annie wide latitude in selecting her second paint color choice. While neither of these parenting decisions is “wrong,” I would really encourage parents to put issues such as bedroom decor into “Everything Else.” It just isn’t worth risking the relationship.
Imagine Annie is a few years older and has been invited to a party by a classmate you don’t know. You’ve heard through the parent grapevine that the parents of this classmate are lax about supervision, and you’re aware that the police have been called to parties at this house before. A friend’s daughter got into trouble for under-aged drinking at one such party. Annie assures you that the parents will be home and that the classmate has learned her lesson. Annie accuses you of being “judgemental” when you express concern about the party and questions why you “never” trust her. Despite your discomfort with Annie’s accusations, your gut tells you that this party is too risky. What would you do?
Clearly, the tension in this example is between “Safety” and “Relationship.” On the one hand, you have a very angry daughter making hurtful accusations. On the other, you have very real concerns that your daughter will get mixed up in inappropriate behavior such as under-aged drinking or that she will get in trouble just for being at a party where such behavior is going on. If your concerns about safety are genuine, then your decision should be clear: no party for Annie. In this case, it may not be easy to stick with your decision in the face of Annie’s objections, but your clarity that you are doing the right thing will strengthen your resolve. To soften the blow and in service of your relationship, you could offer Annie an alternative activity, such as a small gathering at your house, for the evening of the party.
No, parenting is not for wimps. It is hard work. The job of parenting comes with anxiety, uncertainty, challenge. Fortunately, it also comes with the opportunity for boundless joy. So, Parents, do what you must to keep your children safe from harm. Then, put your relationships with them above the disaster areas that are their rooms; their performances on tests, on the field, or on the stage; and the amount of time they spend staring at screens. These are problems that can be worked out without jeopardizing their feelings for you or your feelings for them.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]