They Have to Accommodate

This is the third installment of an eight-part series.

Kids’ needs and wishes matter. Their creativity, their malleability, their resilience, their openness — those aspects of their character matter, a lot. The flip side is that your needs and wishes matter, too.

One of the basic realities of living with other people is that you have to be considerate of those around you. So kids have to accommodate. This means you have permission to tell your kid to let you finish your thought, or to stop climbing on your chair while you’re trying to eat, or to stay in bed at night so you can read your book. In fact, you don’t just have permission to insist they respect your need for these things. Relievingly, you have an obligation. Because it’s not just unfair for you that you never get to drink your coffee while it’s still hot; it’s also unfair for your kid when you get fed up and start yelling at them.

It’s okay to have needs. Does it chip away at your psyche to hear them playing some game that’s not technically doing any harm, though it’s slowly driving you privately insane? You have permission to stop that action. Even if the kid is having fun. Even if you can’t think of a good reason to say no. Do you need a moment first thing in the morning to look out the window without talking to anyone? You can insist on that.

This is how I see it. It’s your job to know what you need, to respect your boundaries and teach your kids to respect them too. You have to know, because it’s your responsibility to anticipate your frustration before it takes shape, so you can steer in another direction, not when, but before you get to your limit.

When you choose to put up with annoyances until you lose your cool, you probably feel you’ve done something wrong. You might beat yourself up about it. But I don’t think getting mad is wrong; I think the mistake happens a few steps before, when you ignore your discomfort to the point that you think you’re powerless and that raising your voice is the only way to regain control.

It’s not just a luxury, advocating for yourself. It’s actually your job not to cede too much. Because your kids need you to be steady, not prone to outbursts. Also, they need to understand that in community and society, they have to be considerate of others.

Like you, children are part of the family. And family is a much bigger project than any one person within it.

That’s a two-sided coin of course. Children have to respect their parents’ needs and wishes; parents have to respect their kids’ needs and wishes, too.

(To be continued next week.)

  • I appreciate this emphasis on balancing the needs and wishes of people who live together, placing a high value on consideration of others, even to the point that the parent or child doesn’t need a defensible reason why they don’t want something – it’s enough to state their strong preference. I think the balance very often is upset, either because the parents rely heavily on their power and authority to maintain control of the environment, or because they don’t want their children to ever be unhappy, and never say no or enforce personal boundaries. These are some of the great, difficult things about living with another person, and it’s important to help children learn them well.

    I was surprised when, after noting that it is the obligation of a parent to insist that their own rights and desires be respected, you started talking about the parent blowing up or breaking down. In my mind, the more valuable reason is the one you mentioned briefly near the end: as kids grow up, they need to learn that we humans are social creatures and choose to share our space, our lives, etc. And that means that we must all be considerate of each others’ needs and wishes, the child no less than the parent. I do see a real danger of a parent who constantly allows the child to be a little tyrant starting to blow up and lose their sanity; that makes for a very unhealthy family. But I see just as much danger, if not more, of inadvertently teaching a child that their needs and wishes are the only ones that matter, and that the people they are closest to fill the role of servant or slave to the child’s whims. It’s hard to un-learn these lessons if they are all someone knew as a child.

    • Thanks. The first time this idea occurred to me was when I was working as a nanny in France and my employers (the parents) would yell at their kid on a daily basis. At the time it seemed clear to me, the problem wasn’t their frustration, and it wasn’t the kid either; it was that they were letting their boundaries get stepped on, over and over, until they couldn’t take it anymore.

      I still believe that’s what was going on, though now that I’m a parent too, I find myself in the same shoes sometimes. When I get frustrated enough to yell at my kid, it’s a reminder that I should have structured the situation in the first place so that my needs were being met. As adults, we have the power to do that (though we don’t always think to).

      But guilt is a main course in the parenting diet, and there’s this idea that if you yell at your kid, the problem was that you lacked infinite patience – not that you failed to teach your kid to value another person’s needs.

      So you end up kicking yourself for the one thing, and not even noticing having done the other. Those two dangers you mentioned, they’re all tangled up. It’s hard to stay sane while being a slave to your child’s whims, and it’s impossible to teach a child to be considerate of others as long as you’re doing so. It has to be a balance, as you said.