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'You're the Meanest Mom in the World!'
My 12-year-old wants to do things that her friends get to do, but I don't think she's old enough and she's furious ... what should I do?
Signed, "Meanest Mom"
When it comes to contests, there's one that nearly every responsible parent wins now and then, and that's "Meanest Mom (or Dad) in the World!" If you take your parenting role seriously, it's inevitable that there will be times when your instincts about what's appropriate or safe for your youngster will collide with what they desperately want to do.
The first thing to keep in mind is that we need to be our child's parent, and that often means they aren't going to like us. Our job is not to be their friend, although it's wonderful when we're getting along and sharing laughs, interesting conversation or mutual interests. But hopefully you have your own friends. If you're looking to your child to fulfill your friendship needs, you're in trouble. To parent effectively, you have to be willing to create clear boundaries, even if it means your daughter "hates" you.
She doesn't hate you. She's mad.
And, underneath her anger, she's sad, or afraid, or anxious about what will happen because of your "no." In her mind, maybe she'll be excluded from future get-togethers with friends, and lose status in her social group. Or maybe she's afraid the other girls will talk badly about her behind her back (a realistic fear for a 12-year old). Or, she could be terrified that if she doesn't get to go to the mall/watch that R-rated movie/spend the night at Caitlyn's when her parents aren't home, she'll look like a baby to her peers, a horrible notion to a tween.
When these concerns get triggered by your "no," it's time to let your daughter vent, but it isn't time to offer long explanations. In the midst of her fury, she doesn't have the wherewithal to process whatever rational explanations you might have to offer. If you come at her with logic about why she can't do the sleepover or watch the R-rated movie, you'll simply awaken her "inner lawyer" and end up in loud, messy, and ultimately unsatisfying debate and drama.
My advice is to state the facts: "Unfortunately I'm not comfortable letting you sleep at Caitlyn's when her parents are away." If your daughter starts to fling horrible accusations, stay as steady as you can, at least on the outside. (On the inside, you may be crumbling, but try your best to appear strong.)
If she demands a reason, the best line is this: "I know you desperately want to go, and, whatever reason I give you right now isn't going to make any sense." This doesn't mean that later, when she's calmed down, you shouldn't explain your thinking. I think it's very important for children to understand what informs your thinking -- when they're calm enough and capable of doing so.
But in the midst of a hurricane, we don't hang pictures on the wall. When a child is in the midst of an emotional storm, it's not the right time to try to convince them of why your limitations are in their best interest. It will be tempting to justify your decision, especially if your daughter accuses you of being mean, old-fashioned, behind the times or any number of awful things.
This too shall pass. It may help to align with similarly-minded parents, so your daughter isn't the only one who doesn't get to do certain things. And of course, as she gets older, you'll have to continue to adjust, and rethink what is and isn't okay.
I would even go as far as saying that if you're on the fence about whether you feel comfortable with her doing something, you might invite her -- if she's respectful and calm -- to lay out the facts to you, and perhaps give you information that might change your mind.
But in the same way that we don't negotiate with terrorists, I would strongly discourage you from caving in to your daughter's demands simply because she's worn you down or hurt your feelings.
Effective parenting requires us to make choices that often cause us to temporarily lose the popularity contest with our kids. That's OK. In the long run, it's our job to parent, not make sure our kids like us. Sad, but true.
Ultimately, what will help your daughter the most will be your calm, soothing presence, helping her offload her fears about what your "no" might mean to her social status. It's likely she'll need to have a good cry. Who better to do that with than her loving parent? That would be ... you!
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