In my parenting teens support group yesterday we had an important discussion about the difference between taking something away from your child or teen as a punishment and setting a limit for your child’s or teen’s safety. This is such an important distinction to understand and I didn’t realize that when I talk about the importance of not doing the former (using what your kid cares about against them), many parents extrapolate it to also mean that we shouldn’t do the latter. Let me explain in more detail why I oppose one but support the other.
Let’s start by looking at caring. Caring is an essential feeling for maturation. It is one of what Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls the “pivotal” feelings, meaning that the trajectory of development (unfolding v. stuckness) pivots on it. Caring is also vulnerable, which means that if it leads to too much hurt, the brain will defend against it and feelings of caring will go missing. When we don’t feel like we have any way to direct or affect our kids, we will often resort to manipulation–to using what they care about against them–in a desperate attempt to gain some sort of parental power or upper hand. This is where I shamefacedly admit that my husband and I used to go around threatening “No book!” when our boys were young and we wanted them to follow our lead. In these moments threatening to not read them a book before bed – a ritual which they (and we!) both loved – felt like our only recourse. Thankfully, we grew wiser in our parenting and stopped employing this common discipline technique. When we use what our kids care about against them, their brains will soon decide to stop caring . . . and this will stall out development. Does this technique “work”? It usually does in the short-term, until the caring goes missing, and then parents are left with a whole host of much worse problems than they were dealing with in the first place. So, for this reason, we shouldn’t use our kids: phones, toys, screentime, books (!), playdates and activities against them.
This is different, however, than taking something away from our child or teen because it is unsafe for them. If our teen has been caught drunk driving, we would be completely remiss not to take away driving privileges (even if they love their car and driving). It is our job to keep them safe. If our twelve-year-old is found to be chatting with someone unsavory online, we have to lock down on their phone usage (even if they care very much about being online). It is our job to do everything in our power to keep our kids safe.
While the result of these two types of interactions may look the same – our kid does not have free-reign on their phone, for example – the intent behind them is very different. The first is an attempt to manipulate behavior by using what they care about against them and the second is an act of our care for them, motivated by the responsibility we have to take care of them. They experience these two things very differently and while the first will inevitably lead to developmental arrest, the second can often end up furthering development. So, while we should make it a practice not to employ the first method, we should feel empowered to use the second method if and when we need to.