Children need parental authority to know who is in charge. And parents need authority to maintain order and provide children with the scaffolding they need to climb high. However, the meaning of authority is often misunderstood as the right to give orders and enforce obedience. This is not appropriate authority for a healthy parent-child relationship.
Another definition is “the power to influence others because of one’s recognized knowledge about something”. The power of influence is the huge responsibility inherent in parenting—a responsibility too often relinquished when parents feel insecure, overwhelmed or angry. Without consciousness and care, that influence can have an extremely negative effect. When children’s behavior triggers emotional reactions and automatic, knee-jerk attempts at control, parents have a negative effect and their unrealistic expectations of their children provoke resistance and defiance.
Parental authority that helps children feel safe and secure requires a good knowledge of what each child is capable of developmentally, temperamentally, emotionally, and cognitively so the child can feel successful meeting expectations. Understanding that normal development means that a child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it, does not mean he has to get it but does help in understanding what appropriate expectations are.
My answer to parents who complain, “He never listens to me”, is that he doesn’t like hearing what you are saying, and more likely the tone in which you are saying it. No one likes to have orders barked at them.
It is essential for parents to set appropriate limits on their children, make decisions that children are incapable of making, and maintain a balance of rights and needs within the family. All this can be done without blame, threats, or punishments—ever. The secret is in letting the child know that she isn’t expected to think like an adult.
Here are some ways of implementing what I call Your Parent Authority Card (PAC):
- I don’t expect that you to want to go to bed. You wish you could keep playing and stay up as long as you want. That’s why I’m here. It’s my job to make sure you get enough sleep, so I have to get you to bed now.
- Of course you don’t want to turn off the TV—I probably wouldn’t either if I were you. That’s why you have a parent—to make sure you do other things too. What would you like to do now?
- Of course you want to go to that party. I appreciate your arguments. Since I’m your parent, it’s my job to make the final decision, and I’m going to say no this time. Bummer. I’m sure I’d be mad at me too if I were you.
- I don’t expect you kids to understand how difficult it is to drive with a lot of noise going on. You’ve never driven and won’t for a long time. It’s my job to keep us all safe, so I have to insist that we maintain an acceptable noise level. Let’s figure out what that will be by making a noise meter.
Using your PAC does not mean that your child will gladly do what you say. But without the blame and threats used to get compliance (If you don’t get to bed now, there will be no TV for the rest of the week.), and without the implied unrealistic expectations (You should know that TV is not good for you), children will more likely respond to your benevolent authority, feel less put upon to understand what they shouldn’t be expected to understand, and thus be more willing to cooperate.
When you have confidence in your authority, there is no need to rage in despair. Use your PAC, and then simply guide your child with a calmer and therefore more effective approach.
When you threaten with If you don’t…then I will…, you wield power over your child and your child won’t like it. He might do what you say right then, but the long term fallout can be great. With a threat or a punishment you send the expectation to your child that he should know that it’s time for bed, that he can’t go to that party, that you need it quiet in the car. This is unfair and confusing to a child who simply doesn’t know, nor should he—he’s a kid.
When you hold appropriate expectations that your child can meet, she feels accepted, understood and respected. Cooperation is likely to follow. Too much time is generally spent on criticism and judgments of what children are doing wrong. No one responds well to that.
Your parental authority is your right when you become a parent. Use it responsibly.
And have a P eaceful, A ccepting and C alm approach with your children.