Last night I was in bed trying to put my daughter to sleep, (chatting and fooling around, of course,) when my partner popped his head in the room, and I asked him if he would go get me a glass of water. Wisely obliging, he went downstairs. When he returned and handed me glass, I said, “Thank-you!” and reached my hand out and took it. “Thank you!” echoed my daughter cheekily as she reached out her hand as if to take an invisible glass herself. We chuckled, and he started back down stairs. “Wait! Can I have some cream?” she asked. (Yes, she prefers cream to milk.) “No sweetie, you may not. It’s bed time, you already had a drink,” I replied, reflexively. Yes, he chimed in agreement. Yes, she had already had a drink, and surely she was stalling. Why not have a sip of mine? No, she wanted her own. She tried pouting. We stayed strong. Then whining. Followed by begging, ‘please! But I said PLEASE!.’ We held fast. This was a situation that could easily, on another night, have escalated into a power-struggle of Yes-No-Yes-No until it inevitably burst; either ending with us giving in under pretense of negotiation, ‘oh okay fine, I’ll get you the cream… IF you promise to go to sleep right after.” Or, with her in tears, fresh out of approaches, and inconsolable at the complete injustice of it all. (After all, how would you feel?)
Instead, I had a realization. Of course she may have a drink of cream! It didn’t matter if she’d just had one, or if she’d just had ten! It’s not like we were in a cream famine. (Like our tape famine, no doubt.) After all, there was no innate danger to a small glass of cream before bed, and if there was, well why not give her the opportunity to find out. Even if it means I could possibly wake up in a child’s puddle.
If this were the same social scenario where, if instead of a 4 year old girl, she was an adult, it would have been considered positively rude for us to not ask her if she too wanted something to begin with at the time when I made my own request. (Let alone flat-out refuse after she requested!) No, even if I thought the beverage would push someone to wet their pants, I should, within reason, respect their character enough to let them weigh the risks and rewards.
Since this was not an adult, but a nearly 4 year old, I felt I should be able to inform her of possible consequences but ultimately allow her the choice.
How we set limits, and when we allow freedom, is what we call differences in parenting styles.
What I experienced in that moment was a personal precedence; my choice to remove some of the limits on hers. I relayed to my partner my realization that there was no legitimacy to our refusal to grant her request, no matter how much he silently begrudged the hike back down and up 2 flights of stairs. He agreed, and she went down with him merrily to fetch the drink together.
When she returned to bed I explained to her why I had attempted to stop her from having another drink before bed, (that she would have to brush her teeth again, and may have to pee,) but that I felt she should be able to find out for herself.
Granting our kids more personal autonomy does not have to mean that we release them into the world, forced to make choices they cannot bear the consequences of. It can mean we equip them with learning opportunities early and consistently that prepare them for the far larger challenges; the kind that even we cannot anticipate.
Parenting happens in the small moments, yet emerges through big ones. We teach our children how to design and build relationships with the world, through their experience of the relationships around them. If our role is to nourish their respect for themselves and others, we must start every time by granting them ours first. Parenting happens most boldly when we allow them to ultimately make a choice that we wouldn’t make. It occurred to me last night that this is also how I will know when my children have ‘grown up’; it’s not that they will have reached a certain age or distance, but that will finally have run out of these such moments to limit for them.
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