Teen curfew: A novel way of setting limits

Negotiating curfew minus the yelling and the screaming. Photo: Associated Press

TOKYO, January 22, 2012 - If anything can go wrong, it will. That is Murphy’s Law, and I believe in it.­­

There are women who spend their nine months of pregnancy deciding between different shades of pastel pink or blue for the nursery walls, buying cute baby clothes, crocheting tiny mittens and socks, and brainstorming names.

Not me. I was busy planning ahead – preparing for the rebellious teenage years.

I had a plan for when Maia wanted to dye her hair green. Let her do it with washable dye, I thought. Or if she insisted on wearing short skirts. Fine, I decided, but with shorts underneath.  If she announced she was getting her nose pierced:  I’d show her photos of all the nose piercings gone wrong, and hope she’d be too chicken to go for it. If the mess in her room became intolerable:  I’d close the door to her room. If she refused to do homework:  Let her teachers deal with that problem.

Yes, I expected everything to go wrong, and I had a plan and alternative plans for every problem.

Still, I was taken aback when I discovered the words, “I hate Mommy,” scrawled in pencil on the window sill of our apartment in New York. Maia was in second grade, and I was not quite sure if I should praise her for writing a complete sentence with correct punctuation, scold her for writing on the walls, or feel devastated and engage in a heart-to-heart talk.

I did none of the above. We were in the midst of uprooting ourselves yet again. I was busy packing our lives into boxes and I accidentally found the graffiti while taking down the curtains.

When I did remember to ask about the missive, Maia was a teenager. She told me she wrote in resentment. Resentment for what, I asked, but she had forgotten the reason, and was busy finding new reasons to resent me.

In middle school, a window sill became once again the scene of Maia’s disobedience.

Maia liked to bring lunch from home, and in Vienna, lunch was often a sandwich and fruit. I always bought whatever fruit was in season, and when grapes were plentiful, her lunchbox was packed with grapes of all colors and sizes. I assumed that Maia liked grapes because there were never any leftovers, and that encouraged me to give her more grapes.

Until one day, while cleaning the windows of her room, I leaned out and found a pile of grapes that were slowly turning into raisins. Instead of telling me that she was tired of eating grapes, or throwing them out and pretending she had eaten them, Maia was piling the grapes outside her window for the birds to eat.

Unfortunately, the birds in Vienna did not fancy grapes.

We promptly discussed changes in her lunch menu, and ended Maia’s production of raisins.

I tried to pre-empt rebellion by not giving Maia reasons to rebel. Good parenting is said to be all about having boundaries, but instead of establishing the boundaries for Maia, I let her establish them herself – but only after a series of discussions and negotiations that included heated debates, yelling matches, and slamming doors.

Maia and I never disagreed about the number of hours she could watch television because she was free to watch as much television as she wanted. She once even missed school to watch the Oscars, and I allowed her on the condition that she dealt with all the consequences such as explaining her absence to her teachers without resorting to lies.

It was Maia’s decision to decide what, when, and how much to watch, but during negotiations, she had to agree that she would not miss dinner because of television, and that she would not ignore the eight-hours-of-sleep guideline because of must-watch programs, and she would finish her school work. 

In essence, there were only so many hours from the time she came home to the time the lights went out, and she was free to spend that time as she wished.

Letting Maia set her own boundaries worked for us, but the practice was sorely tested when – like all teenagers in Bangkok – she started partying on Friday and Saturday nights.

As a teenager, I resented my parents for not letting me party. I thought it was a part of growing up, and I was not going to deny Maia the experience. Still, like big cities everywhere, Bangkok had its share of crime and danger once the sun set. I wanted Maia to be home at a reasonable time, but I was not quite sure whose definition of reasonable we were going to use.

I started negotiations with Maia.

Mommy: So Maia, what time do you think is it reasonable to expect you home during weekends?

Maia: Well, what time would you like me home?

Mommy: When I went to my high school prom, the only time I ever went out on my own at night, I had to be home by nine o’clock

Maia: Mommy!!!

Mommy: Yes, yes…I know…Times have changed since then…

Maia: Will you let me take a taxi on my own?

Mommy: No, you know that women are advised not to take taxis on their own at night.

Maia: OK. How about I come home before the train service ends?

Mommy: What time does it end?

Maia: 12:30

Mommy: 12:30! That’s after midnight!

Maia: Yes, Mommy…

Maia rolls her eyes in exasperation, and being the wimp I am, I surrendered without a fight.

Mommy: All right. 12:30 then.

With that, we came to an agreement, and Maia made plans to party the following Friday.

On D-Day, I did my usual due diligence. I asked the what, where, what time, and with whom questions. I was well informed, and with a good-bye kiss, and make-sure-you-have-enough-money parting words, I sent her off to enjoy the evening while too-tired-to-party Mommy and Daddy settled down to watch television and binge on junk food. After all, with Maia gone, there was no need to set good examples.

Did I go to bed before Maia came home? Of course not! I waited while pretending not to wait. At midnight, I started watching the clock. At fifteen past, I stood by the window to check if she was walking home. At 12:25, my mobile phone rang, but instead of answering it immediately, I let it ring for a while. I was pretending to be asleep!

Maia: Mommy, my friends are taking a cab, and they are dropping me off, but there is a really long line for cabs. I am going to be late.

With patience I certainly did not have, I calmly said…

Mommy: All right. Be careful.

And I went down to the lobby of our apartment building, and waited.

Close to one in the morning, a cab full of teenagers arrived, and Maia was let off. She was surprised to see me reading in the lobby.

Mommy: Maia, what time is it?

Maia: I am sorry, Mommy, but the line for cabs was really long.

Mommy: I asked you what time it is…

Maia: After one in the morning…

Mommy: And at what time did you have to be home?

Maia: 12:30

Mommy: And who set that time?

Maia: Me…

Mommy: Yes, you made the rules of the game, and I expect you to follow the rules you made. I was fast asleep, and you woke me up.

Yes, I lied, and it was not the first time.

Was Maia punished? Was she not allowed to party the following weekend?

Of course not. We hadn’t discussed what kind of consequences would follow if she broke her own rules. It was a topic reserved for second violations, and Maia knew better than to be asked to determine her own punishment.


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Cynthia Lim

Cynthia has lived, studied, worked and parented in more than a dozen cities in four continents.  Born in the Philippines, she is of Chinese heritage -- although she has never been to China, unless we count a few stopovers in Hong Kong -- and is now a Japanese citizen living in New York City.

She has a hard time answering the question, "Where are you from?"  She likes to think of herself as a nomad, or even a hermit crab, toting her home around on her back.

Even while traveling all over the world, Cynthia was able to raise a fantastic daughter -- kind, easy-going, and with admission offers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to boot!  Right now, she's looking forward to attending her daughter's college graduation in the spring, but in the meantime, she is keeping busy, taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, and offering seminars on international parenting and child-rearing in general. 

Contact Cynthia Lim

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