Stop telling kids what to do

I watched a fountain of blood and bones on my 4K HDR TV. A moment later, I realized that my 3-year-old son secretly watched it with me. Cold goosebumps of horror rushed through my body. Did I fail as a parent?

This is the second essay in the series on Impartiality. You can also check out the first one: How can impartiality improve relationships?

When Daniel was three, he started sleeping in a separate room. He knew how to open the door.

One evening my wife and I were watching The Boys, a show filled with dark sarcasm. It’s as inappropriate as it gets for kids. There’s a scene when A-Train, a superhero with supersonic speed, crushes into a girl and smashes her to a pulp. My 4K HDR TV displayed fountains of blood and bone pieces in gut-wrenching detail.

I saw a slight movement near Daniel’s door and realized that he had snuck out and secretly watched the horrifying scene. My wife and I got this sinking feeling that we failed as parents. I asked Daniel to go back to his bed. At first, he complied, but two minutes later secretly came back. I started yelling at him, threatening to take away his treats, screens, and toys.

I felt a black hole of unease grow inside me after this interaction. By enforcing the rule, I sacrificed a tiny bit of our relationship.

Why did Daniel comply with my request? Not because he was convinced that going to bed was the right thing to do. He complied because his dad, whom he normally loved, became a scary monster threatening consequences. It reminded me of my dad, who yelled, intimidated, and physically punished me as a kid. I promised myself that I would be better than that.

One day I had a solution that changed the dynamic of our relationship. We installed a baby gate! When Daniel went to bed, we closed the baby gate in the doorframe of his room so that he couldn't escape. However, we didn't close the door completely because we wanted to hear him in case something happened.

Every evening Daniel spent 10–15 minutes protesting against the baby gate. He stood beside it, shook it angrily, and cried with a "fake cry," but eventually got tired and went to bed. His sleep improved, and family evenings became more peaceful. More importantly, I didn't feel like a villain anymore.

Before installing the baby gate, I was still negotiating with Daniel. I used logical arguments, bribes, and nagging reminders. If they didn't work, I used threats. The "not coming out of the room after 8 pm" rule was soft. He had the option of not complying with the consequence of my yelling at him. He wasn't scared about that outcome or simply didn't understand — he was only three.

When we installed the baby gate, the rule became "hard" - he was physically incapable of getting out of the room. He was angry at the baby gate, not with me. He had new life circumstances to adapt to, which he did.

This story influenced my parenting philosophy in three important ways.

First, delegate responsibilities to inanimate objects. Installing fences is easier than keeping animals from your garden. Using a stroller is easier than carrying a child in your hands. Automating your thermostat is easier than changing the temperature manually.

Second, boundaries must be unemotional. They just exist. The best boundaries are immovable objects created by nature, a life circumstance that can't be negotiated. Soft, flexible, negotiable boundaries are no boundaries at all, and children will recognize this quickly. For example, you may be too tired that day to get into another fight when you try to enforce the rule. So you may decide: "I'm not going to enforce this today; I will let it slide."

Third, clear boundaries reduce partiality. A healthy relationship with a child is a deep connection. It's hard to switch from deep empathy to nagging reminders that "it's time to go to bed" and "stop getting out of your room." As a parent, you are either impartial and relaxed or all tense and looking for an opening to influence your child to do what you want. When the boundary is clear, you can go back to being yourself.

When we fail to create clear impenetrable boundaries for kids, we have no choice but to become reactive and partial, slowly destroying our connection to the child.

Boundaries are like investments. You need to establish them once, and they will keep creating benefits for months and years.

Stop telling kids what to do. Stop negotiating. Create boundaries allowing you to be yourself and connect deeply with your child.