That Elusive Middle Ground
Why balancing rules and freedom is crucial. Plus: Four things I enjoyed this week.
A couple of quick announcements: First, congrats to Erica McConnaughey, who won my September book giveaway! I’m sending her Devorah Heitner’s Growing Up in Public, Emily Edlynn’s Autonomy-Supportive Parenting, and Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough. I encourage all of you to buy these books or borrow them from your library — they’re wonderful. And don’t worry, I’ll have another giveaway very soon!
Second, I want to thank all of you for being lovely and amazing humans. In recent weeks, some of my paid subscribers have started using the chat feature to ask each other for advice, and I am so impressed by how supportive and wise you all have been. It warms my heart that this newsletter has fostered such a compassionate parent community. Thanks for all the ways in which you show up for each other — and for me.
Last week, I stumbled across a study with findings that seemed like a perfect microcosm of an important but nuanced parenting concept. It illustrated the importance of finding a middle ground in parenting between not setting enough limits and setting too many.
In the study, which was published in 2018, researchers at Brown, Dartmouth, and East Carolina University surveyed more than 1,000 American kids between the ages of 10 and 15 about whether their parents let them watch PG, PG-13, or R-rated moves. Then, one and two years later, they asked the same kids whether they had started using alcohol or marijuana. The researchers were curious about the relationship between movie-watching and substance use, because drugs and alcohol are often portrayed positively in movies, especially those with more mature ratings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that teens whose parents successfully restricted R-rated movies were less likely to use alcohol and marijuana a year later than kids who were allowed to watch R-rated movies. (Also, kids who were only allowed to watch R movies with adult supervision used less alcohol than kids who were told not to watch R movies but sneak-watched them anyway.)
We can’t conclude from this finding that R-rated movies cause kids to use alcohol or drugs — it could be, for instance, that parents who restrict these movies do other things that help to protect their kids from substance use, too. Perhaps they have other thoughtful limits at home, they’re more present in their kids’ lives, and/or they communicate more about their expectations. Many things could be going on.
Here’s the really fascinating part, though: The researchers found that kids whose parents restricted PG and PG-13 movies as well as R movies were more likely, a year later, to use marijuana than teens whose parents restricted R movies but allowed PG and PG-13 movies. (These more-restricted teens were not any more or less likely than their less-restricted peers to drink alcohol.)
What does all this mean? We can’t say for certain. But the researchers do have a hunch: “Adolescents may perceive restriction of PG and PG-13 films to be excessive control, in which they respond with rebellious acts such as using marijuana.”
In other words, while some rules and limits are protective, having too many can backfire.
Indeed, we know from research that limits and rules are important for kids. But a growing body of research also finds that too many limits aren’t helpful. Kids who feel overly controlled by their parents can suffer in terms of their self-esteem, motivation, academic performance, depression and anxiety, emotion regulation, social behavior and the quality of their relationships. It’s why there’s been such an emphasis lately on the benefits of autonomy-supportive parenting, which I covered here a few weeks ago.
If you’ve ever been micromanaged, I’m sure you can relate. When people in positions of power have treated me like I’m incompetent and unworthy of respect and independence, I hate it. I lash out. I make choices that aren’t actually in my best interest, just to prove a point. You can’t control me.
The key question, of course, is this: How can parents tell whether the limits they’re setting are appropriate or overkill? Age and context matters, in that we have to consider what kids are developmentally ready for and what they need as well as what their peers are doing. For instance, it’s a lot easier to wait to give your kid access to TikTok if other families in your community are waiting as well, because you don’t want your child to feel like the limits you’re setting are unfair in the broader context of the freedoms their peers are allowed.
In addition to feeling unfair, too many limits can quite literally prevent kids from building and maintaining friendships. If your kids’ friends are constantly talking about Marvel movies, and you’ve never let your kid watch one, it’s going to be hard for your kid to join in and feel connected. (A middle ground might be to watch Marvel movies with your kid, and talk about some of the adult themes that arise that make you uncomfortable.) If all of your kids’ friends have phones and communicate in a multi-kid group chat, your phoneless kid might miss out on various bonding moments as well as invitations to hang out in person. (We’re in that situation ourselves — our 12-year-old doesn’t have a phone yet, but we do let him join group chats on his iPad so he can stay in touch with his friends.)
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that we should let our kids do whatever their peers are doing. Kids really do need rules and limits. But the research suggests that we need to value and consider our kids’ independence as well as their safety. If there are certain rules you’re unwilling to negotiate on, that’s totally fine — listen to your gut, even if it means making your kid the odd one out. But give a little in other areas. Consider ways in which you could grant your kid agency so that they don’t feel constrained on all sides. Our kids, like everyone else, need to feel like they have some control over their lives.
What I’ve been enjoying this week
Here are four great things I’ve read or seen.