Don’t Pick Fights with Your Children

by Noah Berlatsky | Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He has one teenage daughter, a pitbull, and 3-6 cats (they sometimes floof into each other, and are therefore hard to count.)

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My 18-year-old daughter told my wife and I the other day that she only remembered one time when we’d yelled at her. She thinks she must have been around four, and we’d promised her she could have bacon for breakfast. But it turned out there was no bacon. She cried, and I snapped at her. 

On the one hand, what the hell, dad?! Why didn’t you give the child bacon! Go to the store or something! She remembers the injustice 14 years later! Bad parents. Sigh.

On the other hand—only one scarring memory of parental temper in 18 years. That’s not so bad, right? We’re doing okay. Good parents! Maybe?

Partly I think we’ve managed to avoid the yelling because our daughter has always been a pretty easy-going and eager-to-please child. She gets good grades. She’ll take out the garbage when we ask her, with minimal grumbling. She’s kind to her parents and got along with us even when we were stuck inside with the cats and the hyperactive pit bull during Covid for a year and a half. (To be fair, the cats and the hyperactive pit bull were mostly welcome distractions.)

But even though our child is perfect, the fact is we could probably find things to yell at her about if we really wanted to. When you’re a parent, you have a lot of power to make demands on your child. If you want an excuse to exert your authority, or an excuse to create a conflict, you can generally find one. 

We could, for instance, have strictly regulated our daughter’s screentime when she was younger; that would have provoked fights. We could have gotten upset with our daughter when her grades slipped during Covid. She regularly doesn’t hear us talking to her when she’s wearing headphones and watching videos these days; we could yell at her about that. She goes out with friends to parties where there is almost certainly consumption of mind-altering substances. She forgot about my 50th birthday dinner this year and ended up hanging out with friends. I could have yelled at her about that instead of teasing her and expressing mild resentment.

We also could potentially have had huge fights over my child’s gender. She came out as trans during Covid. If we wanted to, we could have stopped her from getting medical care. We could have tried to separate her from her many trans friends. We could have made her life such a misery she would have forgotten all about that bacon. It wouldn’t have been hard. Lots of parents do.

Part of the reason my wife and I have mostly avoided conflict with our daughter over the years is just that we’re lazy. Constantly policing phone use, for example, takes a lot of energy. Do I want to fight with my daughter over whether she can watch three hours of YouTube? Or would I rather watch YouTube? Or, you know, do literally anything else? Power struggles are exhausting.

And if power struggles are exhausting for full grown adult size people, they’re likely to be even more exhausting, and even terrifying, for smaller people with less experience, less leverage, and less power.

None of this precludes nagging and asking children to help around the house. Most adults who live together nag each other and ask each other for help. And of course, children need guidance and sometimes you need to set a boundary for their own safety. The one time I really came down on social media use was when my daughter was crossing a busy street while looking at her phone. (She acknowledged that she could see why that was not such a great idea.) 

But children also need to feel supported and loved in their own choices about their own lives. Parents have physical, legal, emotional, and financial control over their children. That’s an enormous amount of power, and it means that they can frame just about whatever a child does as misbehavior if they want to: hanging out with friends, talking on the phone, getting a snack, sitting quietly, not sitting quietly enough, going outside, staying indoors, reading, writing, watching television, staring into space. Parents can pick fights about anything. 

Which is all the more reason for parents to really try to think through whether every single conflict is necessary or not. Are you policing your child in order to protect them and help them not get hit by a car while crossing the street? Or are you policing your child because you want them to conform to some image you have of what you want them to be—a good student, a reader, a basketball player, someone who is cis instead of trans?  Are you trying to help them? Or are you trying to make yourself feel in control? 

Different kids are different and living with other people of whatever age is always a tricky endeavor. As my daughter told me when I belatedly expressed regret at yelling at her about bacon, “Well, parents are human too.” Nobody’s perfect. So let your kids have latitude to be imperfect too. Adults have a lot of latitude to escalate or deescalate conflicts with their children. Choose to deescalate as often as you can, and hopefully only the very occasional breakfast will end in tears.

Noah Berlatsky, Author

Connect with Noah:

Twitter: @nberlat

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