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Lesson: Your Parent Authority Card

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Authority CardChildren 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 Peaceful, Accepting and Calm approach with your children.

Questions and Answers and a Story 

Toddler Hitting

Q.  My 2 year old was the most docile and easy-going baby until 16 months when he began screaming, hitting, pinching, squeezing and throwing. He often does this without provocation and doesn’t seem upset or angry. He is very aggressive with other children and is constantly hitting and pinching our poor dogs. Our approach with other children is to stay on top of him, to swoop in, and with the dogs show him how to be gentle positively saying, “Pat him gently. We need to be gentle with the dogs.” but nothing works and it only seems to get worse. With other children we try to respond to the child he has hurt first before telling him that he needs to use his gentle hands. He hits us in the face ALL THE TIME it seems, and he can’t seem to stop himself from squeezing and pinching when he is trying to be affectionate. It has been a painful year! We are all a little weary at this point (especially the poor dogs). Any suggestions? Also, he does have a mild expressive speech delay and has been evaluated by Early Supports and Services but has been denied services.

A. The speech delay may cause him extra frustration when he’s intolerant of what he can’t express and you can’t understand. But he is probably a hitter. What I mean by that is some children around this age express themselves best (in their own minds) by hitting or biting. It’s their way of initiating interaction and has nothing to do with anger or upset. This is most unfortunate for the parent as you know how vigilant you must be. It sounds like you are doing a good job of not blaming him and focusing on what you want him to do rather than telling him what he is doing is wrong. It may be quite awhile before this stage developmentally disappears or perhaps it will diminish with his language access. Keep reminding him that his hitting hurts and model gentleness as you are doing. When he hits you, stop him by firmly but gently holding his arms and saying, “That hurts. I don’t want to be hit. Are you ready to pat my face gently?” Give him the option to try again. You are absolutely right to care for the other child’s hurt without blaming your son. Then take him in another room and ask, “You wanted to hit and Sam didn’t like it. Tell me when you’re ready to play without hitting, and we will go back.” But don’t expect him to do what he has agreed to. This is a learning curve and he will need better impulse control before he is capable of changing his behavior. Maintain understanding. And remember, this too will pass.

There’s always a Choice

Q. Considering your problem solving principle questions beginning with, “What is it you want?” what do you do if what the child wants is not an option? The first day back to school after a week break, my 6 yr. old’s problem was that he did NOT want to go to school. I thought about connective parenting and said something like, “Yeah, it’s hard to go back to the routine after a break.”, etc.  So, with the problem solving questions… “What do you want?”, my 6 yr. old did not want to go to school. And in my mind, question #2 -“How can you get what you want?” doesn’t make sense. He wanted to not go to school. This is not an option. Then what? I’m stuck. How do I get my son to take ownership in problem solving with me?  

A.  Children often don’t have a choice what they do (going to school, bed, doctor appts, getting in a car seat, etc.), but they always have a choice about how they feel about it. Your first response was great – acknowledging his difficulty getting back into the routine. Often that is all he needs—to simply know you understand, which might open up why he doesn’t want to go. If he says, “Can I stay home?” your response might be, “You don’t have a choice about going to school but you do have a choice about how you go. Do you want to be mad and grumpy, glad to see your friends, or just okay about it and simply move your body forward to get there?” (This is the What do you want? part) Not wanting to go to school is initially his problem since he is the one with the upset, so what he needs is your empathy, which you gave him. It is not your job to make him want to go, only to get him there. If you are the one upset with his dawdling, it’s your problem, so own it. You might say—”It’s not okay with me to be late for school and work. How do we work this out so we can get out of the house on time?” or “I know you don’t care about being late but I do. What can we do to make this work?” Or you might give a choice—”I need to be out the door by 7:45. What do you need from me to be ready on time? A 10 minute reminder or setting the timer?” Problem solving has many varieties of the basic questions. Not bringing blame into the conversation can go a long way toward gaining cooperation.

Finding a Compromise

Q.  We have an issue with our 14-year-old daughter. Our family and three other families with whom we are friends, get together a couple of times a year. We do this mainly as a fun thing for all of our adopted Chinese girls. About two months ago we made a tentative plan for meeting up at our summer place. Our daughter is now adamantly opposed. She doesn’t mind meeting with them—just not at our summer place. This puts us in the awkward position of having to undo the plans, but the bigger issue is the friction with our daughter. We have tried to re-open the discussion by asking her what would work for her, that we are looking for compromise, instead of either of us having to just resentfully ‘suck it up’. We don’t want the family to do something that one member doesn’t want to do. But we are afraid that we are enabling her if we cancel the trip. She often has very strong feelings (sometimes quite anti-social ones, which have cost her a lot of friendships) and she very often gets her way.

A.  I don’t think you should give up the plan of 3 families to satisfy one member of one family. That gives your daughter all the power and resentment will abound, not to mention the other 2 families being put out. I would acknowledge your daughter’s desire and let her know that if it comes to it, she can stay home if that’s what she chooses. Important that you say this with no blame. It will be awkward to be there without her when the other girls will be there, but forcing her to do what you want will likely not lead to cooperation. It might be important to find out what it is about your summer house meeting that is the problem for her, which acknowledgment can lead to. Perhaps if you take her at her word, she will be left with a different dilemma to solve rather than believing she can cancel the whole plan. You can try, “We will be meeting the other families at the summer house. How shall we make arrangements for you if you don’t go?” This may be a natural consequence learning experience for her or it may lead to finding out that she doesn’t want to be seen at your place as “one of the Chinese girls”. The answer could be something you would never think of. But allowing her choice and not giving up the trip will be a more direct route to finding out.

Story

Here is a clear result of my trying to parent in a more relaxed, trusting and creative way: After a long, tiring morning, my strong-willed three-year old and I were trying to get out the door. Time was running out, and so was my patience! My boy, in trying to avoid getting his shoes and coat on, dashed through the kitchen and in passing, flung a pile of clothes from the laundry basket onto the floor. Grrrrrr!! “Put those back!! Now!!!” I yelled. “NO!!!”, as he ran behind the armchair, peeking out and waiting for Mummy to start the “I’m getting cross, come out from there, etc.” game. But today I managed to give myself a minute’s breathing space and said nothing. Then I sat down on the floor next to the strewn clothes and said very, very calmly, and very sincerely: “I really would like you to pick these clothes up please.” Then I left the room and sat quietly, fully expecting to be tidying up myself shortly. But – miracle of miracles- I went back into the kitchen and he’d done it! Big big smiles!

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"I am constantly astonished and delighted by your rich and insightful answers to parents. I have been a therapist for many years and I work with children as well as adults. Yet with all my experience and my knowledge, there is something so strong and assured about your views on child/parent relationships that they continue to engage and add to my knowledge."
When Your Kids Push Your Buttons
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