All of us have had that boss at one time or another: the one who barked orders at us, never once asking or caring how we felt about our experience. Or the one who was on a constant power trip, making sure we knew just how lowly a position we held; and my personal favorite, the hypocritical one who pointed out our flaws but never once took ownership over his own mistakes. Yeah. Most of us can’t stand a boss like that. Funny how we so often take these positions in our own parenting.
Think about a time in your own life when someone told you to do something and gave you no choice about it. Your feelings and ideas were not heard. Your in-put was never considered. How did that feel? I’m guessing not too good. It occurs to me that in my position of parental power, I can often become a “bad boss” to my kids.
Like most parents, I want my authority to be respected. I expect a certain degree of cooperation and compliance from my children. Unfortunately, authority has gotten a bad reputation in some parenting circles because it is often equated with dominance and control. I think it is a mistake to confuse “Autocratic” with “Authority”. Demonstrating your authority is not about achieving obedience at all times, or making demands without responding to individual needs, or using your size and strength to impose your will on another person. These autocratic methods can be very damaging to your relationship with your child.
So how can we reclaim our rightful place as authority figures in our families? I would assert that when you parent from a place of connection with your children, balancing your directives with their freedom to disagree, you are parenting from your authentic authority. Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. They are clear about what they expect of their children and set appropriate standards for their behavior. They view discipline not as punishment, but as an opportunity to teach and learn. They nurture their children’s individualism, while emphasizing the importance of connection to the family and wider community.
It is a challenge to balance our parental demands with our responsiveness. Given all the stressors on a modern parent, coupled with the constantly changing nature of a growing child, it can be incredibly hard to stay within this ideal zone. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that help me stay in the zone:
1. Lead by Example – People follow strong leaders. Children are the same. A strong moral leader can change the world by example (think of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.). Children imitate everything – your positive and your negative words or actions. Therefore, if there is a behavior you wish to see from your child, you do it first, consistently.
2. Know Your Family Values – What values guide your family? What do you do to embody those values? Be explicit with your kids about your family’s values. This will help them know what is expected of them and why it is important. All of us want to feel part of something larger than just ourselves. A strong family identity encourages positive cooperation and participation.
3. Embrace Your Hypocrisy – You model the behavior and values you wish to instill in your children, but you are not perfect. You mess up and have moments when you fail to be your best self. Confront your hypocrisy; admit your mistakes; resolve to do better and then actually do better. When your kids see you adjust your words and actions to better align with your core values, they will respect you and trust you more. This makes you a strong leader they will want to follow.
4. Be empathetic – Kids are not machines. They are people. You can’t press a button and make them do something. They will have thoughts and opinions about everything you ask them to do. They have an internal world – just like you do – that is positively or negatively affecting them at every moment. Understand that. Be sensitive. This demonstartes to them that you do care about their feelings and you will avoid more power struggles this way.
5. Place Relationship Over Obedience – Recognize that attitudes like “my way or the highway” are damaging to your relationship. Yes, there are some things your kids just have to do, but you can make room for their feelings to be heard. As much as possible, co-create routines together and allow them a say in how things get done.
6. Be Patient and Let Go – So you’ve told your child a million times not to do something. You think he doesn’t listen. You think she just doesn’t care. You want to know what is wrong with them?! Nothing is wrong with them. It’s just that a family is a living system; a dynamic, ever-changing entity of interconnected elements that you cannot control. You must allow for some chaos. The system must be free to self-regulate, grow, and adjust to new influences. It’s frustrating as hell, but it’s the nature of a family and indeed of all life.
Take a deep breath and then go back to number one.