"Time out!" I'd say, and as I walked out of the room, my son or daughter would follow me, with strong, persuasive arguments pouring out of their mouths. Tried as I might, I could never get my children to remain in a time-out. Back when I was still convinced about the efficacy of such methods, I consulted friends who successfully kept their children confined.
"Oh, at first he wouldn't stay. I'd just hold him down the first several times, while he struggled and writhed, but eventually, he learned that I wouldn't give up."
"So, how long would you hold him like that?"
"Oh, at least fifteen minutes."
I didn't last sixty seconds. Half way through the exercise, it dawned on me how ridiculous this was from every point of view. What was my child learning? What was I learning? What would anyone say if they saw us thus engaged?! I'd release the tiger from the cage and let him roar.
This brings me to the question of limits and parental authority. Thanks to Summer, I landed on a site where vigorous discussion about the pros and cons of placing limits on children was being waged. I have to admit that I did not have the patience to read through all 93 comments. But I wasn't really interested in coming down on one side or the other.
First of all, I don't believe that there is such a thing as parenting completely without limits, no matter what any authority says. You may not limit your children's video game playing, or what they eat for breakfast. But by virtue of living together as a family, limits, in some fundamental form, are inevitably placed: on how and when you move around town, when you sleep and wake, what faith you belong to, or what other guiding values you use in your life. We limit our children's access to materials and activities that are beyond their age. We shield them from images and information that are painful or damaging, and which they do not yet have the capacity to understand. We stop them from hurting other living creatures. Limits are imposed constantly by our society and our environment.
Secondly, I am less interested in establishing up front which particular things are off-limits, and which are permitted, than I am in having an ongoing discussion with my family members about what is appropriate at a particular time, and how it fits into with what others might have planned, or even what the weather is like. If it is the first 60 degree sunny day after a drearily long winter, I will place strict limits on video games, and toss everyone outside. This may be an unpopular decision, and I never resort to simply saying "because I said, so, that's why." Recently such a decision occasioned a family discussion that lasted close to an hour, but resulted in everyone being on board for the outing. We don't always have the luxury of time, but whenever possible, we don't enforce, we deliberate.
On the other hand, I have frequently bent previously imposed limits because I saw something really cool happening, or for purely selfish reasons, or because I have a soft heart. Sometimes I witness a moment in my kids' imaginative play that is pure magic, and, although I've made other plans, I put them on the back burner to let the magic continue. Other times, I need to get something done, and having my kids otherwise distracted is a win-win situation. This is no different than letting your toddler watch Teletubbies so that you can take a shower. And, yes, there are times when I am persuaded by the "Bambi eyes" and the fluttering eyelashes.
Perhaps with the exception of the very strongly principled few, who either support or disdain limits, I suspect most of us struggle with them on a daily basis. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Though, in truth, it is not about winning and losing. If you treat your children as fully vested human beings, I believe you learn that flexibility is more important than limits. My children are not loud and demanding, but they are strong-willed, stubborn, outspoken, and increasingly able to construct a solid, unshakable argument. My job, as I see it, is to help them place their desires against the context of the needs of family and society, and learn when and how to compromise with grace, and when and how to stand up for themselves with conviction.