Reclaiming Parent Leadership
Things have really changed now that parenting has turned into a project focused on deep (theoretical) psychological qualities. Parenting used to be about children’s values, character, and behavior. The primary parent-child understanding was quite simple: Parents told children what to do, and children did what they were told. Back then, parents didn’t use methods. They simply made their expectations perfectly clear. The parents in question weren’t perfect, and not every parent back then was equally effective, but the overwhelming majority brought a calm confidence to their responsibilities. They communicated that confidence in the way they spoke to their kids, and their kids responded by doing what they were told. Pre-1960s parents understood something very important: A child needs unwavering authority from his parents as much as he needs their unconditional love.
Then along came psychologist Thomas Gordon, the author of Parent Effectiveness Training, one of the best-selling parenting books of the 1970s. He maintained that the only reason the 1950s child obeyed his parents was fear of what would happen if he did not. In the absence of any compelling evidence, he independently decided that the basic principles parents had been following and the ways they’d been doing things for several hundred years in America and thousands of years in the rest of the world were bad for children.
It’s Gordon’s legacy and a result of his mischief that many of today’s parents are wishy-washy when it comes to setting limits and giving instructions. They don’t discipline with purpose. They negotiate with their kids. They want their kids to like them. That’s the short list. No one has benefitted from what Gordon set in motion.
If you are ready to start a retro-revolution in your family, you must be clear about your ultimate goal. Knowing your goal – defining it precisely, in terms of specific objectives – will enable you to focus and fine-tune your parenting behavior. In that regard, I propose that the only valid parenting goal is to raise a compassionate, responsible citizen, a good neighbor who will strengthen community and culture.
When I’m doing a small-group workshop, I have each parent write a ten-word-and-phrase description of the adult they want their child to be when the child is thirty years old. That goal- always expressed in terms of "character words" such as compassionate, charitable, responsible, faithful, hardworking, trustworthy, honest, and generous – becomes a guide for your day-to-day parenting behavior. In any given parenting situation, you simply ask yourself, "Of the options available to me right now, which one will best advance my child toward becoming a responsible, compassionate, charitable adult?" Having a clear goal and keeping the goal in the forefront of your "parent mind" is the key to consistent, purposeful parenting behavior.
Then, recognize that just as soldiers, employees, and church congregations need leadership, so do children. Become a leader of your children!
Any responsible adult who has a child’s best interest in mind can be an effective leader of that child. A child cannot mold his or her character alone. It takes patient, purposeful parent leadership to help a child develop respect for others and a desire to serve. With that in mind, here are the elements of a parenting style that best accomplishes exactly that:
Be decisive. Don’t ask a five-year-old what he wants to eat for supper, where he wants to sleep, when he wants to go to bed, or what his chores and the rules that govern his life should be. Act like you know what you’re doing. Wear your authority as if it belongs to you.
Communicate clearly and purposefully. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. When communicating expectations, use an economy of words. The more words you use, the more you begin to sound as if you asking instead of telling.
Delegate responsibility. By the time a child is four, he should be "earning his keep." He should have daily chores that take precedence over after-school activities. And you should not pay him for doing these chores, no more than he should pay you for fixing his breakfast. He does these chores because that’s part of being a member of a family.
Penalize deliberate misbehavior and irresponsibility. Do not tolerate disrespect or disobedience, but before or after you punish (depending on when the child is most receptive), explain why you are doing what you’re doing and that you really don’t like doing it. You simply must – it’s your responsibility.
Have no problem saying, "Because I said so." That is how you can stay out of nonproductive verbal warfare with your kids. You pay taxes because the government tells you, and it doesn’t have to give you a good reason, right? The earlier a child gets used to the fact that everyone has to do things simply because someone else says they have to, the better for all concerned.
Don’t yell, threaten, bribe, beg, or bargain. Give instructions as if you expect obedience. "It’s time for you to pick up these toys" is far more likely to result in compliance than, "My friend Mrs. Jones is coming over, and we’d like to use this room. So would you do Mommy a favor and pick up these toys for me? Okay?"
Understand and accept that your children will misbehave. When it happens, there’s no need to freak out or overreact. Simply deal with it. Reprimand firmly but without yelling, correct without criticizing, and punish in ways that establish permanent memories but not resentment.
Stand confidently at center stage in your family. Understand that you cannot exercise effective leadership if your children don’t pay attention to you. Make it clear to your kids that most of the attention in your family goes from child to parent, the parent to child.
For more specifics concerning this prescription, I refer the reader to my book The Well-Behaved Child: Discipline That REALLY Works! In it, I describe what effective authority looks like – its essential ingredients – and give real-life examples of solutions to behavior problems that range from garden variety to very strange indeed.
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