Who's The Boss

Decision making, a parental prerogative, is sometimes yielded inappropriately to children. In a family therapy session recently, the family members were asked who the boss in the house was. Michael, a bright little six year old cheerily replied, "I am!"

Intelligent, loving, well-educated parents often find themselves in a position in which decisions about daily life, entertainment, and special plans are all debated by their children, who believe they have an equal, or even louder, voice than the parents have.

How does a situation like this arise? There are several possibilities. The most probable reason is that parents read and listen to experts about child development and want to develop happiness, creativity, and autonomy in their children. Self-confidence, initiative and a good sense of values are worth striving for. How to achieve these goals is sometimes elusive. Parents may fear that they will inhibit or damage their children, possibly curtail their spirits if they exert authority. Hence, they are hesitant to assert themselves. When they finally do, it may be with mixed feelings or, even worse, with total frustration.

Many times, parents swing to permissive extremes in which their children are allowed freedom to make decisions that should not be theirs to make. For children to be given decision making power which they cannot possibly manage is damaging in terms both of family relationships and of the emotional development of the child. By virtue of limited experience, a child does not have the wisdom to make good decisions about many things. Thus, when children determine their own limits and boundaries, the authority structure turns up-side-down, resulting in frustration for all.

There are many different techniques that can help parents be more effective in dealing with their children. The first, and basically the strongest, is the use of the authority inherent in the parental role. The direct and clear expression of ideas, values and feelings is a powerful and valuable source of influence. Here's how:

Say what you mean concisely and forcefully.
Don't let yourself get sidetracked.
Insist upon what you think is right.
Don't over- explain.

Let's look at the family mentioned above as an example. In the same family session, Michael's mother decided she wanted him to sit down while everyone was talking, rather than run around the room as he was doing. With a little encouragement, she moved to accomplish this. She said in a firm voice:

"Michael, I want you to stop running around and sit in this chair." (Michael's mother expresses herself in a direct and forceful way.)
"Mom," he answered in his winning way, "Look at that apartment. It has a terrace with pretty flowers." (Michael attempts to divert his mother.)
"I want you to sit down now." (His mother reuses to get sidetracked.)
"I don't want to. I hate sitting down. I hate being here." (Michael attempts to make his mother feel guilty.)
"You might not like it, but I want you to sit down anyhow." (Mother insists on what she thinks is right.)
"Why do I have to? You never made me before. Why?" (Michael tries to put his mother on the defensive.)
"I'm telling you now! Sit down!" (His mother stays non-defensive.)
Michael sits down.
If the parents do not clearly establish themselves as the decision-makers in the family, they've been sharing the authority with their children. Therefore, when they say "It's time for bed," they may not be listened to. The clear, direct expression of ideas will not be effective until parents regain the authority that was originally theirs before they shared it with their children. This takes determination to start a new course of action as well as persistence once it has been embarked upon. The mother in the example above set on a new course and learned remarkably quickly.
Equally remarkable was the speed with which her son recognized and responded to her new-found authority!