Bedtime was usually a nightmare for Sandra, mom to 5-year-old Patrick. He was usually exhausted by the 8 p.m. bedtime, yet he persisted in arguing that he was not ready to call it a night. Every experience was pretty much the same, with tears and angry or hurt feelings, leaving Sandra hopeless and frustrated. The problem was Sandra not only expected Patrick to obey her bedtime rule, she also wanted him to be happy about it. As with many parents, this mom was caught in the “happiness trap.” When parents can’t bear to see their children upset by their rules, it becomes impossible to set any limits, even while knowing those limits are necessary.

The key to avoiding feeling guilty or angry that Patrick isn’t complying with her expectations is for Sandra to acknowledge his disappointment. By connecting to the root of their power struggle each night, she can let Patrick know she recognizes he doesn’t want to go to bed while still standing firm. She might say something like: “I know you wish I’d spend the entire night with you and bedtime would never come. Now that it’s 8 o’clock, it is Mommy’s time.” This response accepts Patrick’s feelings, letting him know it’s okay to be disappointed or to disagree.

The new scenario could go something like this: Sandra gives Patrick a ten-minute warning before bedtime, then five minutes. Patrick resists, telling his mom he never sees her and wants her to stay in his room. She connects to his feelings, and gives him a choice: “You miss me during the day while I’m at work and you’re at school. We have so much fun together that it’s hard for it to end. I understand. In the five minutes we now have left, would you like me to rub your back or read another story?” Whatever Patrick chooses, Sandra sticks to the five-minute limit, then says: “Okay, honey, our five minutes are over. Would you like your night light on or off?” Patrick might whimper a bit, but Sandra turns on the night light, gives Patrick a hug and kiss, and leaves his room. After about a week of crying and protesting, Patrick accepts the limit and settles into the routine.

As parents, it’s our job to set the limits our children need. They won’t necessarily agree or like some of our rules, and that’s okay. It’s their job to try to get what they want when they want it. While we need to provide structure, children want freedom. We need to keep them safe, yet they are attracted to adventure and danger. Although we must be the voice of reason — knowing they need good sleep, exercise, a healthy diet, etc. — we can’t expect children to be rational, or to see things from our perspective. Of course it would make parents’ lives so much easier if they shared our view! Imagine this absurd scenario: Your child agrees and says; “You’re absolutely right, Mom. I shouldn’t stay up past 8 o’clock or argue with you. I need my sleep. Thank you for reminding me.” However, many parents try desperately to tease their children into happy compliance, or the alternative is to become rigid and controlling to enforce the rules.

Let’s be honest, there are times we all face situations where the limits aren’t absolute, where we have some ambivalence or some wiggle room. Sometimes we don’t know what our position is, or how strongly we may feel about something, until our child works hard to turn our “no” into a “yes.” We then realize we don’t agree. I recommend pausing before making a rule, setting a limit, or rejecting a request, asking yourself: “How strongly do I really feel about this?” This could save you the difficult process of explaining, arguing, justifying. Fortunately, parents don’t have to choose between being overly permissive or rigid and autocratic. There’s another, better way — it’s about being the authority figure, while maintaining connection with your child. When “no” is indicated, listen to and understand your child’s sadness, frustration, even anger. She has a right to her feelings.

Autocratic parents set limits without explanation, typically rigid and controlling while expecting total obedience from their children: “It’s no because I said so. Do as you’re told!” Permissive parents: “I should say no, but, OK, you talked me into it,” not wanting their children to be unhappy. Permissive parents use bribery and pleading, often giving in. Their children assume the control, because these parents need their children to always be happy with any limits they impose. It means “no” could be “I’m not sure,” or “maybe not.” Although permissive parenting may feel loving in the present, keeping your child happy, it breeds insecurity. Children can’t handle, nor do they want, too much power. They need their parents to be in charge — both loving and firm.

As with Sandra and Patrick, here are some examples of the different parenting styles in action:

Permissive — Mom tells child it’s time to go to bed, as it’s getting late. Child refuses: “No, I don’t want to.” Mom: “Please?” Child: “No, I want to stay up longer.” Mom: “But it’s getting late. Be a good boy and get ready for bed now, okay?” Child: “NO!” The child runs off while mom complains that she is unable to do anything with him. Yet by allowing her child to set the terms, she has lost her authority. When offered a choice, children rarely will pick the option that isn’t fun.

The autocratic, rigid approach doesn’t work any better. This parent expects complete obedience without any questioning, forcing her child to comply. When you say: “The answer is no because I said so,” you’re really saying: “I don’t care what you think or how you feel. I’m the boss.” This approach brings defiance and dishonesty, sneakiness. As in the above scenario, mom tells her child to get into bed because it’s getting late, but in a different tone: “You better get into bed this minute!” Child: “Just a little more time.” Mom: “No! Get into bed right now or else!” Child, whining: “I want to stay up longer.” Mom: “Stop that whimpering or I’ll give you something to cry about. Why don’t you ever do as you’re told?”

Neither of the above approaches feels good, certainly lacking connection with our children. Ultimately, the approach that is a win-win is one in which parent and child make an agreement before he starts playing a game, that he will get ready for bed at 8 o’clock. Mom: “It’s 8 o’clock. Time for bed.” Child: “Already? I wish I could stay up longer.” Mom: “I know you’d like to play that game longer, and the clock says 8.” Although her child goes upstairs reluctantly and complains a bit, his mom doesn’t take it personally. She has no ambivalence or guilt about her decision. Instead, she can say: “I don’t blame you for being disappointed. The time went fast.” These parents maintain their authority, understanding the need to set realistic limits, providing structure for their children, which creates a foundation of trust and security. Parents listen to their children’s perspective, treating them the way they would like to be treated — with respect and dignity.

Please send me your questions.