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Connections

Being the big, bad parent

While saying no is necessary to both teaching and raising kids, don’t expect thanks for setting boundaries.

Illustration for Connections essay in 4/7/13 issue

Gracia Lam

Illustration for Connections essay in 4/7/13 issue

SOME YEARS AGO, I caught a high school senior in an act of blatant plagiarism that surprised me. The student was an English teacher’s dream — the kind of kid who, if you assigned Pride and Prejudice on a Tuesday, would turn up Wednesday reading a Jane Austen biography for fun. Yet her final paper was a sloppy mishmash of her own work with that of someone more famous. I still remember the dread I felt as I read it.

I had no choice but to report her and let the school’s disciplinary machinery go to work. But I felt uncomfortable playing Big, Bad Grown-Up at a time when I still felt very close, in age and mentality, to my teenage students.

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The day her sentence — a suspension — was handed down, the girl came to see me in my office. I braced myself for recriminations and tears. But instead what I got was gratitude. “Thanks for caring enough to notice that I did something wrong,” she said. “I appreciate it. I’m glad you were paying attention.”

As a young teacher, those words were exactly what I wanted to hear, and I carried them with me down the years. Whenever I struggled to stand firm — usually, when a kid I liked did something stupid or was particularly charming in his/her efforts to wheedle out of a requirement — I’d flash back to that conversation up in my garret office. I’d remember how grateful that particular student was to hear “No.”

But now that I have a child of my own and see each day how a very young person learns about boundaries, I question the rosy glow this anecdote casts over the concept of “tough love.” My son, 2, is at the age where the whole world is a grand experiment and each hypothesis must be tested, again and again, to be sure it still holds true. Often, he will reach for the stove, knives, or scissors and shout “No!” as he does so. Then, hand hovering near the forbidden object, he’ll look at me to see what I do.

When I say “No” along with him, he looks pleased. The pleasure, I’m sure, comes not from the boundary, but from the sense that he’s figured out something about how the world works. But when there’s something new he wants and I say “No,” his response is not what you might call positive. It’s intense, frustrated, primal. He definitely does not thank me for establishing boundaries.

In these moments, I remember my former student and her apology no longer rings true. There is, of course, a great deal of difference between toddlers and teens, but I’m still struck by how quickly the girl moved from breaking a rule to thanking me for catching her, with not even half a day spent on frustration or disappointment or embarrassment.

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This was a kid who was good at doing what teachers wanted. When, for whatever reason, she couldn’t write that final paper herself, she gave me the next best thing: her assurance that I’d done exactly the right thing. At the time, I was too flattered by her validation to question the speed at which she arrived at it.

If I had it to do over, I like to think I’d probe further into her sudden appreciation of limits. Had she not gotten them when she needed them? Did she have a sense of right and wrong beyond what was expedient?

I can’t determine now what was going on with that girl all those years ago, but it seems the memory still has something to teach me. The lesson now, though, isn’t how good it feels to be thanked by a child, but how thankless it must be, sometimes, to try to be good for a child.

Alison Lobron is a writer in Great Barrington. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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