By Joseph Sacks LCSW
Although I generally advise in my blog a more gentle, flexible parenting approach, in considering how to have authority over your child, obviously sometimes exercising a bit of parental authority it is necessary and best for everyone. The question is when and how much? The answer is that parental authority is much more happily accepted by a child when he truly feels that the parent is doing what's best for him or her. That means he needs to have faith that although what they're asking him to do right now might not seem pleasant and he might not understand it, since he sees that most of the time they do good, pleasant things to him and generally make him happy, he can trust that the present unpleasant thing will be best for him too. You need to generate in the child a habit of presuming “Everything my parents say or do for me, it's for my own benefit.”
How do we create that? By striving to always be a source of pleasure to our child and never a source of stress.
Be gentle, flexible, lenient and generous with your child most of the time, and then when the occasional time comes to lay down the parental authority he will accept it, thinking, “Mommy and Daddy always make me happy. This rule will probably make me happy too.” Even if he resists in the moment, stand your ground and insist on compliance, knowing full well that your general spirit of generosity towards the child will carry the day. In addition, we must remember that the less often we apply parental authority, the more likely it will be accepted. No one likes to be told what to do all the time and too many rules will create resistance and rebellion, but generously letting the child have his way most of the time will give him the strength to comply with the rules that minority of the times when we must enforce them.
Is it really for his benefit?
The rule is that you need to think very carefully and honestly when exercising parental authority, is what I'm about to ask my child to do truly in his own benefit? or will I be sacrificing his happiness to fulfill my own needs as a parent? There is an exception. Sometimes you may ask a child to comply with a rule for the parents’ benefit because it will ultimately be for the child’s benefit. For example if a child has been banging on pots and pans for half an hour and is starting to give you a major headache, it is in the child's own benefit that you ask him to stop because if mommy has a splitting headache she's going to be in a very bad mood and is not going to be able to be a very good parent for the rest of the afternoon! You can even explain to the child that he needs to be quiet because it's very important that mommy doesn't get a headache because it mommy gets a headache she won't be able to be a good mommy and make you happy. The wisest course is to help the child to understand that what you're asking him to do is actually in his own benefit. Over time he or she will begin to trust you thinking, “Mommy always does what's best for me, I trust her.”
Let's say you have a 12-year-old wants to go to an event which you judge to be too dangerous and inappropriate for your child to attend.
We must understand that if you spent all day of the entire week leading up to that event being kind and gentle and generally making the child's day pleasant, he will have the strength to tolerate your denial of permission to go. But if he's been constantly hit with all kinds of overly strict rules and regulations and no longer feels you're truly doing everything for his benefit, you may have a full-scale rebellion on your hands.
The same idea applies to a five-year-old. If you've been flexible and generous with him for the past half hour, then you may ask him to hold your hand tightly while crossing the street and he will gladly comply. But if the answer was no to the last five requested activities then he is going to be in no mood to hold hands and you're going to get dangerous resistance.
This doesn't mean that you have to give in to your kids all the time. It just means that I recommend you be 20 percent more flexible and generous across the board and you will see wonderful results.
Don't fear that only exercising your parental authority say once a week will leave your child with too few limits and structure. When the child knows that firm limits are there even if only occasionally, their influence will always register in the back of his mind and it will keep him in line.
In addition, there is a deeper dynamic to understand.
If a parent is constantly trying to enforce rules that are not truly for the child’s benefit, then the child will sense the injustice. You will be in effect teaching him, “Your needs as a child are not what's important, it's my needs as a parent that are important, and I'm going to use my parental authority to force you to fulfill my needs.” This teaches the child that one should use his power to get his own needs met at the expense of others. So then later when you ask the child to do something that really is for his benefit, like going to the doctor, and the child doesn't want to go, he may refuse, saying, “In fact I don't believe that going to the doctor is for my own benefit. Many things you do don’t seem to be for my benefit, therefore I will use my power to get my own needs met by having a tantrum and refusing to go to the doctor.”
For example, let's say a 6-year old child finished dinner and goes to play, and you say if you want to have dessert, you have to clear your plate.
This may sound surprising, but the truth is it is of very little benefit to 6-year-old to get in the habit of always clearing his plate. You may be trying to teach him some kind of responsibility or manners, but he is simply too young to benefit from such instruction. It is much more beneficial for a 6-year-old to enjoy his dinner, leave his plate and then go run and play. When he's 12 he'll learn to clear his plate. The truth is, the parent is asking the child to clear his plate for the parents own benefit, so that the parent can have a sense of order in his house, and have the proud idea that “My child clears his plate.” In addition, threatening to take away his dessert if he doesn't comply is also a very negative and unpleasant punishment that is doomed to fail. The child knows intuitively that all this is no good for him, and if you enforce it he will think, what's good for me is not important. They only want to control me to fill their desire for power and authority. Therefore, I will do the same thing. I will try and use whatever power I have to get them to fulfill my will.” This may take the form of tantrums, defiance and rebellion. If you make a habit of forcing the child to comply with such rules he will begin to resist you even when you're clearly doing things for his own benefit, such as trying to get them to take some medicine.
The above applies to a child with a strong, independent character.
On the other hand, if the child is of a more softer, gentler character, and he is forced to comply with many rules that are not for his own benefit, because of his gentle nature he may obediently comply. However, you'll be teaching him, “Your needs, feelings and desires are not important. Those of your parents are,” and this will generate low self-esteem, low self-worth, repressed emotions and a whole host of emotional health problems.
Therefore, it is of paramount importance that you always strive to help the child to truly see that everything you're doing for him is really for his own benefit. This involves doing a lot of research on Parenting and finding out what truly is in the best interest of a child. However, if you have good intentions but you simply are mistaken as to what's good for child, he will intuitively sense that you're not benefiting him and you will have problems.
For occasional, important issues, stand your ground.
Now, if you have been being generally flexible and generous, giving in on the small stuff whenever possible and making the child happy as much as possible, and an important issue comes up such as going to the doctor, not running into the street, or going to a dangerous party late at night, you can and should be very firm and not take no for an answer! You must be firmly decided in your mind that your child will comply no matter what, and not entertain any thought of disobedience. Do not plead or negotiate, just firmly state the limit like you mean business. You can explain to the child that it’s for his own benefit, and you mind is made up! When used only occasionally, the child will appreciate the security provided by such structure.
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, download one of my informative free reports, or view my video. If you are struggling with how to have authority over your child, and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in NYC, you may call me directly at 646-681-1707 for a complementary phone consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!