A friend commented on my post about being friends with your children (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” ). She was concerned that friendship might undermine the “ability to be authoritative and a disciplinarian within the parent-child relationship.“
Her comment got me thinking about authority. Like most words, authority can mean several things: having power, being in charge, being an expert, and/or being a reliable source of information. Our own experiences with authority have a big effect on how we use—or don’t use authority in parenting our children. We may have experienced authority that was used in an appropriate, fair, beneficial way. Or we may have experienced authority that was used in an unjust, arbitrary, or abusive way.
What does beneficial authority look like? Beneficial authority is reasonable, respectful, and responsible.
Reasonable: Reasonable authority is based on rules and there are clear reasons for the rules. Most of us have an internal set of rules based on safety, social customs, and family values. Often we aren’t consciously aware of what those rules are or why they exist. So it’s useful to examine our internal rules and decide if we want to keep them, add new ones, or discard some. Examining the rules on a regular basis, with your partner, and as a family, will help to keep the rules reasonable and make them easier to enforce.
It’s easier to enforce rules when you yourself believe them to be important and fair. When children have agreed to and even helped come up with the rules, it is even easier. Easier—but still not easy. Remember that no matter how fair and reasonable rules are, sometimes it is extremely difficult to follow them.
Respectful: Respectful authority enforces the rules in a way that preserves the child’s dignity and physical and emotional safety. Parent educator Jody McVittie describes this as being kind and firm at the same time. Kind and firm means that parents can empathize with the child’s distress while still enforcing the rule: “It’s hard to stop playing when you are having so much fun. Now it’s time to say goodbye to the slide and go home for lunch.”
It’s upsetting when a child cries or says, “I hate you!” Like many parents, I often gave in, tried to placate, or got angry with my children. It was (and sometimes still is) difficult to accept their emotional reactions without trying to suppress or dismiss them. But acknowledging an emotion is actually more respectful, both to the child and to the adult, and often makes it easier to enforce the rule.
Being respectful to our children, even when we are angry or disappointed with them, also shows them how to be respectful to us and to others.
Responsible: Parental authority is valuable because it helps parents to protect and guide their children. Children need protection and guidance, and parents are responsible for providing it. But children also need opportunities to do things for themselves and to learn from the consequences of their actions—both positive and negative. Sometimes the responsible parent stands back.
Determining exactly how much protection and guidance is needed in a given situation can be tricky. Different cultures and families (and individuals within those families) have different standards. Children have unique temperaments requiring more or less use of authority. Responsible use of authority requires frequent assessments of a child’s needs and abilities and of the environment surrounding the child and the family.
Staying reasonable and respectful helps parents to determine whether standing back or stepping in is more responsible when challenges occur.
Authority that is reasonable, respectful, and responsible is effective. It helps children grow and parents stay sane. It’s authority we can both respect.