Mom who can't say `No' sees the light

September 14, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

I OFTEN WARN the "civilians" about whom I write that they may not recognize themselves in the newspaper.

Unlike politicians and other newsmakers who are routinely written about by journalists, regular people can be as shocked when they see themselves in the paper as I am when I see myself in a bathing suit in vacation pictures.

I got a sense of that when I picked up a recent Newsweek magazine and found a cover story devoted to parents who can't say no to their kids.

I am one of those parents. And when I recognized myself in that magazine story, I was as uncomfortable with what I saw as I ever have been with any vacation pictures.

The authors, Peg Tyre, Julie Scelfo and Barbara Kantrowitz, make the point that two-income, conflict-averse parents can't seem to get to "No" when it comes to their kids.

They concluded that a fateful convergence of affluence and indulgence is producing a generation of kids who won't be able to handle life's inevitable disappointments, let alone learn to live on a budget.

Their report had mostly to do with "stuff," all the products and clothing our kids need to keep up with their friends and classmates and to satisfy the appetite created in them by marketers aiming at the billions these kids have to spend - and the billions they talk their parents into spending.

But there are lots of other "Nos" parents are not saying, limits they are not setting because they want their children to be happy, or at least quiet.

I recognized myself on every page of the article.

I am the mother who reasoned that her child was a good kid and therefore deserving. The one who remembered what it is like to be cut out of the adolescent herd because she didn't have the brand names to compete.

I am the mother who kept writing checks in the name of giving my child every academic and athletic advantage because I feared that they could not succeed on their own in a world increasingly competitive.

I am the one who never asked my kids to get a job or do a chore because schoolwork and sports seemed enough like work.

I am the mother who was often too tired to say "No."

Yet I am the same mother who reported for work each day to tell newspaper readers that kids want limits because it makes them feel secure. The one who wrote that the parents should never be drawn into negotiations with their children. Simply say "No" and leave the room, I wrote. Never give them the opportunity to wear you down.

I am the same woman who reported on research that found that while parents, particularly mothers, reported their relationships with their teens were fraught with conflict, the same teens most often reported no conflict at all in their relationship with their parents.

In other words, the kids don't think you are fighting. You are the only one who thinks that you are fighting.

But I went home and said "Yes" to avoid those fights.

The jury is still out on my two. Both are college students, and if I act now I might still be able to foster some self-sufficiency, some self-denial, some self-respect.

My nephew Bill already has those things.

I recently visited him in Harrisburg, where he works for state government. A college graduate, he had to wait a long and discouraging 18 months to find a job that would pay him enough to handle his burdensome student loans.

He now lives in a tiny efficiency apartment with a day bed, a bookshelf, a TV and some yard-sale dishes. He can walk to work, but he is thinking about taking a second job to help pay for the car he can't afford.

He is poor as a church mouse and probably in over his head. He walks home for lunch and eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so he can afford a couple of beers on the weekend. Aside from the zucchini muffins his mother sends back with him after visits, he is doing it on his own.

It isn't so much that his parents always said "No" to Bill. With four kids, they probably didn't hear him when he asked.

Instead, there is a dignity in his struggle that is missing from the lives of children whose parents never find a way to say "No."

And that is the bottom line, I think, in apocalyptic stories like the one in Newsweek.

It is not so much that our children will be emotional or social cripples because of our indulgence, and that society will cave in upon itself.

It is dignity - for them in the striving and for us in the parenting - that is lost when we can't find the words for "No."

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