Kids need boundaries; to stay safe and to feel cared for and to learn how to take direction. But what about when those boundaries start to feel oppressive? I consider my mother to have been rather strict when I was growing up, and it was not a great feeling. Growing up with a strict parent has made me more laid-back with my own kids, as I've decided to take a more laid-back approach to parenting because, well, I don’t want them to feel as fenced in and stifled and untrustworthy as I did, when I was their age.
I am sure my mom’s authoritativeness always came from a good place: protection. I think as a working parent, raising two kids in New York City during the 80s and 90s (before the high crime rates started to come down) her life was stressful. Laying down the law in our home, with no room for negotiation, meant freeing up some brain space for her to worry about heavier stuff, up to and probably including: playground safety, orthodontia bills, and how I was going to pass the state physics test in eleventh grade (by the skin of my teeth). And, as I got older, my parents did relax their grip in a few (surprising) ways. They told me I could try whatever drug I wanted, under their supervision, in our home (none for me, thanks). They didn’t give me a curfew, but they did ask me what time I’d be home if I was going out, and held me to that specific, predetermined time. They allowed me to date and, once I had a license, they always let me borrow their car (after we signed a drunk driving contract where I swore I would call them if I had been drinking).
Maybe it was because I had been trained to be so “good” when I was younger, under their strictness, that they felt I earned their trust. Maybe the exhaustion of being so strict got to them, and they just grew too tired to keep it up. Either way, I can’t help but think that maybe if they had eased up a bit when I was younger, I wouldn’t be so bent on not repeating their strict approach with my kids. I spend a lot of time figuring out where I can relax (nightly baths), and where I can’t budge (bedtime), and I know I'm not alone. Here are just a few ways growing up with a strict parent, makes you more laid back with your own kids:
You Let Them Eat Dessert
We had snack cakes in our house, but they were hidden. My parents enjoyed them, but doled them out in small amounts and only occasionally. Very few kids wanted to come to my house to play because snack was granola and there was rarely dessert. Growing up, I was fixated on sweet stuff. Because I couldn’t have it, it’s all I wanted. I’d sneak food, and developed a binge eating disorder that has taken me decades to sort of get under control.
I have worked hard to help my kids develop a healthy relationship with food. I do not withhold sweets from my kids; they get a little something in their lunch every day, and after dinner. And lo and behold, they have actually turned down cake at times. “It’s too sweet, mom. I’m done eating it,” they tell me. I have never uttered these words ever.
You Let Them Slack On Veggies
Growing up, my mom enrolled us in the Clean Plate Club; no dessert (if there was any) unless we devoured everything she served us. That was tough on pork chop night, and even more so when Brussels sprouts were on the menu. While we serve vegetables with dinner every night, I do not force my kids to eat them. I ask them to make sure they’ve tried it, and if they only take one bite, I leave it at that. At ages eight and five, they are still so resistant to most veggies, but I feel like we’ll get there eventually, because they always see me eating my veggies. I do so because I was trained; I hope they do so because they find vegetables they love. So far, edamame and baby carrots have made the cut. Baby steps.
You're Curious About What Your Kids Have To Say
I have more dialogues with my kids than I remember having with my own parents. I remember my mom talking a lot, at me, but I don’t remember her asking me a lot of questions. So, now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know their opinions matter to me. I want them to feel heard. I mean, I’m still the parent and the one in charge, but when my daughter calls me out for interrupting her, I admit she’s totally right. I have to give my children respect, if I am to ask them to give me respect, too.
You Watch Tween Sitcoms With Them (And Laugh)
My mom thought all TV shows were “stupid” when I was a kid, and she wasn’t totally wrong. But everyone needs a little mindless entertainment sometimes and, as annoying as the snarky one-liners coming from the mouths of these babes on certain kid shows, my daughter loves it when I sit down to watch an episode with her during her allotted screen time. It’s time we spend together, and watching her laugh makes me happy.
You Don’t Freak Out When Your Kid Wears Lipstick
I got in so much trouble sneaking eyeliner on in sixth grade. Finally, when I was 13, my mom gifted me with a tube of mascara and the lightest pink lipstick you could possibly make without it being clear. Still, I longed for crimson lips and darkly outlined eyes. Now, my 8 year-old asks to wear make-up and I let her, under certain conditions: not to school or parties or anywhere that I’m not with her, only lipstick, and only if I apply it. Again, because I don’t make a big deal out of it, she’s not sneaking into my make-up bag (anymore; we did have a few episodes before I set these ground rules).
You Don’t Force Them To Study
Yes, I look at their homework after they’ve gone to bed, so I can see what they’ve done and if they’ve missed anything. If something is missing, I present it to them at the breakfast table the next day. If they resist looking it over again, I don’t sweat it. It’s their work, and they need to learn the consequences of shirking their school responsibilities. Obviously I wouldn’t do this if my kid was really struggling with a subject and needed more help. But if they are going to pull that “I don’t want to“ crap, I’m not going to stress about homework. So far, so good. They like school, and that’s what counts. I hated having my mother, the teacher, check my homework. There was always something I could have “done better.” My father would ask, maybe kiddingly, “What happened to the other two points?” if I brought home a test with a 98. I want my children to understand the subject matter and check their work. If they’ve done those things, and can maintain their love of school, I’ve done enough. I hate that they make careless mistakes or write sloppily, but sometimes the lesson in failure is the one that sticks .
You Let Them Wear What They Want
As long as it’s climate-appropriate, we’re all better off letting kids choose their outfits. I remember my mother telling me, when I was four, that “red and pink don’t match,” even though I argued they were both “warm” colors. I won’t dictate my kids’ style, because it’s a battle that’s just not worth having. If they want to mix prints, who am I to stop them?
You Believe Haircuts Are Optional
My mother would trim my bangs and my brother suffered through her home-styled bowl cuts. My daughter is going through a Rapunzel phase and as long as she gets up early enough to comb out the knots, it’s all good.
You Don’t Force Your Kids To Interact With Adults
Recently, a saleswoman stopped us in the shoe department of a chi-chi department store where my daughter and I were just browsing ($1700 designer heels are for my dreams only). She asked my daughter if she saw anything she liked. My daughter is not one to shrug off fashion-related inquiries, so she and the woman had a pretty deep conversation about patent leather and platform height. But if she had been like me as a kid, and recoiled from big people, I would have politely smiled at the saleswoman, shrugged, and been on our way.
I don’t need my children engaging in conversation with adults if they don’t want to; grown-ups love that sh*t because it feels like they’re playing a game. However, to a shy kid like me, being forced to talk to grown-ups is the worst. It’s why I quit trick-or-treating after third grade. I just couldn’t deal.
I remember the day after getting my tonsils out, when I was nine, and we were leaving the hospital. We were in the elevator and I was holding some flowers my father had brought me. A grown-up commented on their beauty and asked who gave them to me. I looked to my mother, my eyes pleading for her to answer for me because my throat was killing me. She gave me “the look,” the one that said, “I raised you to be polite and give an answer if you’re asked a question.” Through the raw, searing pain, I whispered, “My dad.”
At that very moment I swore I’d never force this level of politeness out of my own child. If another grown-up asks my kid a question, no matter how sweet or charming or innocent the intent is, if my kid doesn’t feel like answering, and the questioning adult thinks we’re mannerless cretins, so be it. I believe in politeness, but if a child is shy, it can be overwhelming to face a stranger just for the sake of some small talk. I respect that fear because I lived with it.