Love and Limits: What Is Natural Authority?
By Adelia Moore
It was time to leave the playground. I was 26, pregnant, and the stay-at-home mother of a 2-year-old. My husband and I had just moved to a city that was hundreds of miles away from any family or friends. I knew no one else with a young child. My son was happily swinging, but it was time for lunch, and soon after that, the battleground of nap time. When I told him that it was time to leave, he said, “No, I don’t want to go! I want to swing! I want to swing!” After at least two more failed efforts at verbal persuasion, I lifted him off the swing. He cried and squirmed out of my arms and finally threw himself on the ground and kicked and screamed in a full-fledged tantrum. I wanted to cry myself.
It was an ordinary moment, but a stressful one. It was one moment among countless others during my years of raising children in which I felt the painful paradox of being the grownup. I had to set limits that someone I loved was not going to like.
A few years later, in Pittsburgh, we had a friendly and outspoken neighbor whose backyard was in earshot of ours. He didn’t yet have kids, but he had opinions. If he overheard my husband or me scolding one of our boys, he might call out, “Love and limits, love and limits, that’s what it takes.” Authority is both the way a parent responds and the kind of demands he makes....
Despite my experience with children as a big sister of six younger siblings, I was new to this relationship of parental authority that day at the playground. Not knowing what else to do, I carried him, arms and legs flailing, the blessedly short half-block home. I was grateful that the playground was empty. How could it be that hard to get a 2-year-old home? I had obviously stayed at the playground too long and now this tired and hungry little boy was incapable of pulling himself together. And it was clear that in that moment, I didn’t know how to help him.
Still, I made a decision for his well-being and my young family’s routine. I carried it out because I had a feeling of authority. I knew he needed lunch and a nap. And so did I. This was the moment in my own development that I understood what being a parent meant, even more than struggles over sleep when he was an infant. He was more of a person now; he could push back at my authority with words. But in this instance, he was beyond words. Stressed and upset and alone as I felt, I knew that I had to be the grown-up in our relationship. I had to show him my love with firmness. We had to go home.
What Would Spock Do?
Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, one of the very few books for parents available when I was a young parent, included the advice that sometimes you just have to pick up your child like a squealing pig. I don’t know now if I had read that back then, but that’s what I did. It wasn’t the most nuanced advice in the world, but it got to the heart of what it means to be a parent, something the contemporary culture of parenting seems to have forgotten: Whether it’s about chores or homework, screens or curfews, getting out of the house or getting to bed, you are in charge (along with a co-parent if there is one) and your kids often won’t like what you do. (Did you like everything your parents did?) Your kid may scowl, stamp a foot, slam a door, whine, cry, tell you they hate you – and believe it or not, you are still the grownup, you still love them, and their objections, or their efforts at negotiation don’t change that.
In those tough moments, remember that your child relies on you for both love and limits: Scoop ‘em up like a squealing pig, send them back to bed, or insist that they come to dinner. When you do, you are reminding them: I am the grownup. I love you. I will take care of you.