I was standing on the cookie and cracker aisle of the local supermarket the other day, when I witnessed the most amazing transaction between a young boy and his mother. The boy, who appeared to be about four or so, announced in a loud voice that he wanted “COOKIES!” as he snatched a box of chocolate chip cookies from a low shelf where the store had cleverly placed them. His mother, who was following along behind him with her shopping cart, promptly parked her cart. A very lop-sided power struggle then began between the boy and his mother right there among the saltines and the vanilla wafers.
Mom: Now sweetie, I’m really sorry, but we can’t have any cookies today.
Boy: But I want cookies.
Mom: You know you’ve already had sweets today at grandma’s, Nathan, so we have to put the cookies back.
Boy: (clutching the box of cookies tighter) NO! I want these cookies!
Mom: No sweetie, you really have to put the cookies back now – I’m really sorry.
Boy: (teary) NO!!! I hate you! I want cookies!
Mom: Nathan, that’s not a nice thing to say about Mommy. We don’t use words like that. Now, please put the cookies back.
Boy: No, no, no! You’re stupid!
Mom: Please, Nathan, I’m sorry, but it’s time to put the cookies back now…
Boy: (screeching) No mommy! No! I told you!
And with that, little Nathan and his box of cookies dashed off down the aisle and disappeared around the corner. His mom ran after him and I heard screaming and crying a few aisles away. I continued my shopping, but saw them again in line at the checkout. Nathan was red-faced, his mom looked harried and the box of cookies was on top of the other groceries in their shopping cart. To the victor go the spoils – and it was clear who had been the victor in the cookie battle.
What was particularly interesting about how the whole cookie transaction played out is that Nathan’s mom is not a poor communicator or a poor negotiator. I recognized her from our local bank where she holds a fairly powerful position in which she regularly conducts intense negotiations for the commercial loan department. Despite her business skills, she began their little interaction with an incredibly weak move – an apology. I highly doubt she would ever do this in a business context. Her pleading, over-explaining and continued apologizing gave her four-year-old son the upper hand throughout the entire interaction. She started weak and it was downhill from there.
What I witnessed at the grocery store is played out time and again all over this country – apologetic parenting. Rather than approaching our children confidently and establishing appropriate boundaries, knowing that we are acting in their best interests, we feel we need to apologize for doing our jobs as parents. When we come at our kids from this sheepish, half-hearted approach, they begin to discover from a very young age that we are gutless and unenthusiastic about enforcing the rules, discipline, and boundaries that they need to learn in order to become happy and successful members of our society. They begin to react like Nathan – begging us to restrain them. Why do we parent this way? Perhaps we feel guilty because we are working parents, or we feel our parents were too harsh with us; whatever the reason for our hesitance, we are creating a whole lot of little Nathans with our apologetic approach to parenting.
I felt for Nathan’s mom. The scene at the grocery store had to have been embarrassing for her. She still had on her name tag from the bank and I’m sure she had had a long day at work before the battle with her son began. But more than this, I felt sad fearing for her for what the future held if she does not come to grips with her parenting of Nathan. Today the battle was over a box of cookies, but in the future, the struggles would progress to much more important things, and she will have far less power over Nathan at that point. At four, he had already figured out how to best her – what would he be like at twelve? At sixteen?
I also felt for Nathan. Nathan needed his mom to tell him “No” – to REALLY tell him NO. He needed to hear, see and feel that his world had limits and that his mom was willing to enforce them. Having such boundaries makes children feel safe and secure. From the little glimpse I got, Nathan was living in a world in which he was calling the shots – a wild west with few clear boundaries.
What Nathan wanted much more than cookies was to know that he was loved and for his mom to show him – clearly and without apology, how far he could go with his four-year-old power and what role she, and by extension, other adults would play in establishing the limits on his power. These are the boundaries and limits every child wants. Nathan could then use that information in his dealings outside his relationship with his mother – with his grandmother, at school, and at church; and this knowledge would help him to behave appropriately and to enjoy his relationships with others.
A few key reasons why it’s so important for Nathan to learn about boundaries and limits now:
- Without learning about these limits now, how would Nathan understand and follow his teacher’s request that he sit at his desk when he begins Kindergarten?
- How will he understand how to make and keep friendships without knowing how to respect personal boundaries? As it is, he is learning that if he perseveres, he can wear down his opponent.
- How will he know how to respect other peoples’ property once he has more freedom to move about on his own?
So, it may be hard as a parent to say no to our children’s demands and to limit their freedoms when we know they are going to protest (sometimes loudly). We do not need to apologize for setting appropriate limits as parents – not ever. We are making an investment in our children’s future ability to have healthy relationships and in their ability be a functioning part of our society. It is through our tutelage that they learn these important lessons. Sometimes, through our fear or reluctance to dissapoint our children we abdicate our role as teachers of these important lessons. We instead choose to apologize for our roles as parents, which may reduce our anxiety in the short run and short-circuit some of the daily battles we have with our children. But, in the long-run, we doom our children to lives of anxiety and chaos when we choose this path. Nathan deserves better. All children deserve better
Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC