This past Saturday evening, my husband & I took a stroll around downtown Durham and checked out a pizza place in the historic Fire Station #1. As I was chatting with the manager, I learned that they hosted a “Family Meal” every Sunday afternoon with the goal of bringing families together. There’s a caveat, however…
In order to foster the family time together we make a couple of small requests. Okay, they may be big requests for some folks. We ask that everyone put their phones or smart devices into the baskets on the tables and to not touch them during dinner. Crazy right? … We ask that you share your table with other families to foster community….Our tables also feature conversation cards to spark family talking, create dialogue and foster interaction between adults and kids of all ages.
Then, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I heard an interview with Dr. Leonard Sax, author of The Collapse of Parenting. Dr. Sax said that, “…the point of the book is you need to give kids choices in some domains but not in others. I'm seeing a lot of parents who are really confused about in what domain is it appropriate to give kids a choice. For example, is it OK for your 14-year-old to take their cell phone to bed with them? My answer is no. But so many parents think it is their job to be their child's best friend. That's not your job. Your job is to keep your child safe, make sure they get a good night's sleep and give them a grounding and confidence and help them to know who they are as human beings.”
So, how is it that a pizza place can impose some limits to create a context for family connection and, yet, we have a hard time doing that as parents? The key is knowing what domains are appropriate to give kids a choice.
A few years ago, Nurture Shock was written to debunk some parenting myths. In the chapter titled, “The Science of Teen Rebellion”, researchers Nancy Darling and Linda Caldwell were struck by parents’ fear of pushing their teens into overt rebellion. “Many parents today believe the best way to get teens to disclose is to be more permissive and not set outright rules. Parents imagine a tradeoff between being informed and being strict. Better to hear the truth, we think, than be kept in the dark.” (p. 139) But Darling found that permissive parents are not truly more informed about their children’s lives. She said, “Kids who go wild and get in trouble mostly have parents who don’t set the rules or standards. Their parents are loving and accepting no matter what the kids do. But the kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don’t actually care—that their parent doesn’t really want this job of being the parent.” (p.139)
Darling observed, “Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing the rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids.” (p. 140) Ah, but the trick is exactly what Dr. Sax observed—knowing what domains are appropriate to give kids a choice. Darling goes on to say, “These parents set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they support the child’s autonomy, allowing her freedom to make her own decisions.” (p. 141)
Scholar Judith Smetana illustrates the point this way…a father and daughter might agree that he can set rules about driving because those are safety related. But the father might also believe that he should have the right of approval over his daughter’s friends and his daughter adamantly disagrees, believing that who her friends are should be up to her alone….The tension comes when parents and adolescents don’t agree with what goes in which category. (p. 258)
What we are aiming for is to be the parents who make sure their children feel heard, and if the child has made a good argument for why a rule needs to be changed, lets that influence their decision. This is the parent who understands that there are different spheres (or domains) of control.
If you are wondering how to get started, you might want to schedule a family dinner at the pizza place and talk about it!