Parental boundaries, restrictions a way to show love

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

The story is a family classic.

Rachel, my sister, was 3 years old; I was 7. As the youngest, perhaps she needed a little extra assurance, my father contended — or extra attention, as the eldest, I also pointed out.

But I have since learned that children from the youngest to the oldest in every family ask the same question many times. Maybe not in the same way, but they ask it.

The rain was coming down in torrents, one of those gully-washing, gutter-bending downpours. Rachel stood in the den looking intently through the window at the rain when our father walked in.

“Diddy,” she said using her pet name for Dad as she turned from the window and fixed her mischievous green eyes on him. “Can I go out and play?”

Dad glanced outside again to make sure the rain had not abruptly stopped. It hadn’t.

“Sure,” he said, masking his tease. “You can go out.”

“But it’s raining out there,” she reminded him, pointing outside.

“I know,” Dad replied.

“But I’ll get wet,” she argued.

“Yep, you probably will,” he countered calmly.

“If I get wet, I might get sick, too!” she exclaimed, raising her voice a good octave.

“That could happen,” he acknowledged.

And then, with a real trace of hurt in her voice, she said, “Diddy, you don’t love me!”

And we smile at her unvarnished honesty that young age often reveals. Rarely do children explain their sometimes outlandish requests and actions with that kind of transparent openness. They are usually a bit more subtle and veiled in conveying their feelings.

But the motivation is the same. They want to know, “Am I loved?”

Rebellion, defiance, antagonism — all are often nothing more or less than attempts for children to learn if they are loved. Sometimes they test parents just to see how far they are allowed to go before they hear a good, solid, no. And that no says, “I love you.”

Oh, they will fume, fuss and want to fight about it. But down deep inside they have heard what they wanted to hear.

And besides, as my sister now says about her own children’s reactions, “They’ll get over it.”

And they do.

Restrictions and rules become the backboard against which a child can rebound while they are growing their own set of self-restraints.

Firm boundaries show we care. Thoughtful consequences show how deeply.

Over-permissiveness is not necessarily an expression of love; it may be the opposite. Sometimes it is easier to say yes, keep the smiles coming, and avoid analysis of the request. No nagging. No arguing. Household peace reigns.

On the other hand, being overly strict or coercive does not automatically demonstrate love either. It may be spawned by a parent’s inner fears, frustrations, or insecurities, stifling the necessary growth that only measured freedoms can bring.

Somewhere between the two extremes, as Aristotle reminded us, lies the virtue of loving and the even greater virtue of letting our children know they are loved.