“How loving would you find it if your husband, with the softest voice and expressing lots of love and empathy for you, imposed a limit on you against your will, and held to that limit, forcing you to comply? Would that be taking you seriously, or would it be coercively controlling you? Would the limit feel loving to you? What would you think if your husband felt taken aback and misjudged to learn that you did not find his loving limit loving (and he continued holding to the limit he had set for you)?”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“What is wrong with loving limits for children?”
Imposing limits on children is like a husband imposing limits on his wife. It is something people do when they view the other person through the lens of paternalism, and thus think that the person needs to be controlled for her own good. It is coercive. In equal, side-by-side, horizontal relationships, there might be genuinely mutual, wholehearted agreements, but what there is not is one of the parties coercively controlling the other, setting limits for her, and expecting to be obeyed.
“Why or how is it coercive to set limits? I am assuming the parent is not manhandling the child to get them to stick to the limit.”
It is coercive because the child is being compelled to abide by the limit set by the parent against the child’s will. That does not necessarily involve overt force, but the child is nevertheless not free to act otherwise. If the child were actually persuaded that the limit was a good idea, there would be no need to set a limit in the first place. It is precisely because the child disagrees with the limit that the parent feels it necessary to set one. The child obeys the limit out of fear of punishment should he fail to obey.
“But what about loving limits—limits with love and empathy?”
Adding “loving” to “limits” changes nothing, it just adds confusing mixed messages to the coercion. The parents are coercing the child while acting as though that is not what they are doing. They are pretending that they are not responsible for the distress they are in fact causing.
Not that that is how parents see it when they are setting loving limits. They honestly believe (like all paternalists do) that without their control, something very bad would happen to their beloved child. Paternalism is very well-meaning, whether the paternalism of old in regard to women, or the remaining paternalism with respect to children.
The paternalists are mistaken in thinking their control is justified. Children have as much right to control their lives as we have to control our own. There is nothing wrong with children, any more than there was something wrong with women. In neither case is paternalism justifiable.
Whether “loving” or otherwise, these limits carry an implicit threat of withdrawal of love and connection to compel obedience, as can be seen in the following quotation:
“As children are faced with the necessity to rein in their impulse toward something they want…, so they can have something they want more (a warm, happy connection with you), they learn self-control.”
If your husband took to making his love and connection conditional on you complying with rules he sets for you, would that be taking you seriously? How loving would it feel?
And it is actually worse to do this kind of thing to our children, because by choosing not to have our children adopted at birth, we have created obligations to our children including not to deprive them of the love and connection that they need.
“Empathy makes your limit more palatable to your child, so she doesn’t resist it as much. That’s what allows her to internalize it. Kids need appropriate limits, but it’s how you do it that counts.”
Imagine if this were said to a husband about controlling his wife:
“Empathy makes your limit more palatable to your wife, so she doesn’t resist it as much. That’s what allows her to internalize it. Wives need appropriate limits, but it’s how you do it that counts.”
Would that be advocating taking his wife seriously?
How loving would you find it if your husband, with the softest voice and expressing lots of love and empathy for you, imposed a limit on you against your will, and held to that limit, forcing you to comply? Would that be taking you seriously, or would it be coercively controlling you? Would the limit feel loving to you? What would you think if your husband felt taken aback and misjudged to learn that you did not find his loving limit loving (and he continued holding to the limit he had set for you)?
The parent does honestly feel for the child—just not enough not to impose and enforce the limit. By adding the expression of love and empathy parents hope to make the coercion less unbearable for the children, and they hope to be able to set and enforce the limit without destroying their relationship with their child. But there is nothing non-coercive about it.
When we impose limits on our children, what happens? Instead of seeking solutions to problems that seem interesting to them and doing what seems good and right to them, they are being coerced into seeking their parents’ approval. This kind of thing can lead to children growing up feeling compelled to make themselves comport to others’ preferences, always trying to get others’ approval. This can also lead them to learn to dissemble, to hide who they are and what they are about in order to gain the approval of others. It fractures their integrity, and can lead to a lifetime of miserable inauthenticity and approval-seeking. That applies just as much to “loving limits” as it does to any other coercive limits.
Do we really want to be coercing our beloved children out of the joyful, unselfconscious, autonomous, self-directed, wholehearted, optimistic, authentic rational creativity they are born with, into other-directed, approval-needing and approval-seeking, inauthentic dissemblers?