This title of an old Woody Allen movie came to mind while talking to a mother about an issue with her 10-year-old daughter. They had a rule about the amount of screen time that would be allowed each day. Mom knew the child had used up her time, but the girl denied it, saying she had been reading when mom thought she was watching.
This turned into a dispute about whether the child was telling the truth rather than about her wish to watch something more. It seemed that “lying” might have been the “crime” that had to be addressed, while more screen time was perhaps only a “misdemeanor.” But mom got caught up in trying to get the child to acknowledge the truth.
This is a familiar situation that arises as children try to talk their way into getting what they want – or don’t want to do. Children turn into lawyers arguing their case, while parents insist on determining the facts of the situation. I commented to the mom that children often feel powerless in the face of parental rules, so they fudge the truth at times, evade the rules and if all else fails, beg and cry. Children need to feel they have put one over on parents once in a while.
Mom asked if this meant that she should have allowed the child to have more screen time despite their rule. This brought up another familiar point that arises in these kinds of conflicts. It begins to feel to a parent as though the only alternatives are to enforce your rule in some way or to “give in” to the child. In this case it seemed to mean trying to prove to the child that she was not being truthful in order to justify mom insisting the rule had to be followed.
Actually, the seeming “truth” of the situation was not the point. The issue was really that the child wanted to watch something on her iPad. Mom felt if she didn’t prove the child had used up her time there was no basis for not allowing her to watch. But mom could have decided to let her watch without reference to the “truth” or the rule. Was it a good idea to let her watch then or not?
This gets to the hard part of being a parent. No manual can tell you the “right” thing to do. Parents are afraid that if they go along with the child they give up their authority. But authority as a parent means making decisions about what is best for your child. There is no rule that applies to every situation. Mom might have decided it was best to let the child have more time without any discussion about whether she had used up her time earlier. Getting into an argument about who is right is what turns the issue into winning and losing rather than doing what is best.
Page 2 of 2 - Parents give up their authority and are no longer in charge when they become drawn into an argument on the child’s level. It may seem easier at the moment either to give in or try to be the boss. It is this abdication of real decision making that leads to the undermining of authority. Real authority lies in doing what you think best in each situation. If you make a real decision it is not “giving in.”
Wanting your own way is not a crime. Children can’t always have what they want – but let’s not get too caught up in arguments about their misdemeanors.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.