Your Child is Not Your Equal: Why You Have to Be the Boss

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Your Child is Not Your Equal: Why You Have to Be the Boss

As a parent, if you aren’t the boss in your family, the lines of authority can become blurred very quickly. When your children are unsure about who's really in charge, they often act out, engage in risky behavior, or become extremely bossy and patronizing as a result. And eventually you start to resent them because you don't have a way to tell them what to do. You’ve effectively lost control.

One of the ways you can lose your status as a parent very quickly is to act like a child.

Many parents also want to be their child's friend—they don’t like the idea of being the boss at all. The major problem with this approach is that a friend is non-judgmental, and friendships are egalitarian. In my opinion, your child’s role simply isn’t equal to yours—as a parent, you have to make judgments and be in charge because otherwise, no one will be.

By the way, I want to be clear about what I mean by the “boss.” I often define this as the “Limit Setter” role when I’m talking to parents. I firmly believe parents need to set limits on their kids and maintain the rules of their household using consequences and accountability. While the Limit Setter role is extremely important, keep in mind that it should not be the only one you use. The other critical roles I’ve identified are those of the “Teacher”, where you help your child learn how to behave more appropriately, and the “Coach”, where you challenge your child to behave better—much like the coach of a sports team would do. While being in charge and setting limits is vital, all three roles need to be utilized if you want to be at your most effective as a parent.

You Were in Charge When Your Child Was Young—So What Happened?
I think when children are very young, it’s easy to see that the parents are in charge. In other words, they make the decisions, direct their children in their day-to-day activities, and organize things for their household. They also supervise their children’s behavior and decide what’s appropriate and what's not. And you'll often see children from the age of about six to ten being fairly compliant. During those years, parents tend to develop a friendly relationship with their kids. This is a time in life when many children, unless they have behavioral problems, will listen to you, do what you ask, and spend as much time with you as you'll let them.

When adolescence hits, the whole game changes. What emerges is not only a lack of respect for parental authority, but also a situation where your child wants to be the boss. Many parents have a hard time reasserting their role as the person in charge when this happens. And if you've never established yourself clearly as being in control, it may seem as though it's almost impossible for you to do it after your child becomes a teen—or even a pre-teen.

Why is that? One reason is because the developmental stage we call adolescence is really a time for your child to individuate, and the way children do this is by pushing adults away. They lean more toward their peers, and they think their friends are the only ones who understand them. In fact, they don't like being around adults much—and they certainly don't like being around the adults who are telling them what to do!

Healthier kids will tell you they resent your authority in various appropriate and semi-appropriate ways. This might range from saying “Stop telling me what to do all the time!” to eye rolling and loud sighs each time you make a request. But there are other children who will tell you they’re upset in inappropriate ways: by acting out, being verbally abusive, destructive, or aggressive.

Soft Choices and Hard Choices: 4 Areas Where Parents Need to Have the Ultimate Decision
Many parents encourage their kids to participate in family decisions, and I personally think that’s a good thing to do. Don't forget, when you're raising your child, one of the things you want them to learn is how to be independent. In fact, studies have shown that the more independent kids are, the better chances they’ll have of making choices in their lives in ways that increase the likelihood of success in life.

So the way you develop independence in your children is by letting them make choices and encouraging their participation. It’s natural for kids to start thinking they have a say in everything when you parent this way, unless you are clear about the choices you’re giving them.

I think knowing which issues to assert your authority over—or in which to let your child have a vote—is a very tricky line for parents to walk. Just remember, there are things kids can have a voice in, but not the final choice of.

In my opinion, parents have the ultimate say-so on these 4 things:

  • Safety
  • Health Issues
  • Performance
  • Preparation for Adulthood

You can say to your child, “Listen, these are the areas where I'm in charge—it’s not a subject of debate. We can talk about things, but I have the final say-so and that's the way it has to be. That's my role; I'm the parent.”

So you make the decision on whether or not your daughter can go out until midnight. You make the decision whether or not your son is doing enough homework and chores, and if his grades are acceptable. You make the decisions about what's healthy and not healthy for all your kids. You make these decisions because you’re in charge taking care of your family to the best of your ability.

By the way, I think it’s perfectly okay for kids to have a vote on things that aren’t going to affect their safety, health, performance, or preparation for adulthood. You can conceptualize these issues as “soft choices” and “hard choices.” Soft choices might include what clothes they’ll wear, which video you’ll rent for family movie night, how long their hair is, or what color nail polish your teen daughter chooses. Encourage your child to make those soft decisions—and then honor them. So let your child wear what he picked out, as long as it's not inappropriate.

It's very hard when your child is an adolescent for parents to dance between giving your child enough independence and being the boss. It’s difficult for almost everyone, and that's why so much fighting goes on during this time. There are a lot of traps you can fall into, but you've got that line you're trying to walk: knowing when to let your child be independent and when you have to be the boss. I think if you ask yourself, “Is this a soft choice or is it a hard one?” you’ll have a clearer understanding of how to navigate those decisions.

When Kids Think Their “Vote” is Equal to Yours
Why do many kids think their vote in the family is equal to their parents’ vote? I think part of the reason, besides what we’ve already mentioned, is that children, especially teens, want control. I’m not saying you should give it to them, but make no mistake, they want it. That's a legitimate interest of their developmental stage. Kids also think they should have a vote in everything because they want to be equal to their parents—and they’ll try to argue with you until they’re blue in the face to convince you of that fact.

Again, ask yourself if the question you’re discussing is soft or hard: It's good for your child to have a say-so in the debate about which restaurant you’ll go to tonight; it's not good for him to have the ultimate say-so about what his curfew will be.

“You Do It. Why Can’t I?”
When your child says, “You do it. Why can’t I?” The best answer is, “We're not talking about me. We're talking about you.” Keep the focus on your child. That way you won't get distracted and defensive. Make your statements black and white: “Don’t turn this around on me. I don't think you're ready to go to the late movie yet.” And then back it up. Tell your child why you don't you think he's ready. Your reasons should have to do with decision-making, choices and responsibility.

A Word about Negotiating…
In my opinion, kids can have a voice as long as they speak appropriately, but parents need to make the ultimate decision. Don't negotiate with your child right after a decision is made. I think it’s often effective for parents to say, “If you want to talk about this decision more, you have to wait 24 hours.” That way, everybody is calmed down once you do talk.

I used to tell the kids I worked with, “You have the right to make a statement to your parents as long as you express what you want appropriately. Your parents have the right and a responsibility to challenge the points of your statement if it doesn't sit right with them. But ultimately, they make the choice.” I think there’s room to discuss choices as kids get older, so I would tell them, “If you don't like the choice your parents made, your job is to say, for example, ‘What do I have to do in order to get a later curfew?’” Let's say the teen’s parents gave him a curfew of nine o'clock, but he wanted a ten o'clock curfew. I think it’s all right for him to say, “What do I have to do in order for you to trust me to stay out until ten o'clock?” His parents would have to consider his request. Their answer might be, “Well, we'd like you to keep a nine o'clock curfew for one month, and see how that works out. We want to see you meet this responsibility first. If you come home late on curfew consistently or you have a hard time with it, you’re showing us that you're not responsible. If we let you stay out later, that's because we think you're responsible enough to make good choices and manage your time.”

Try to keep communication open. If your child gets heated or shuts down, always keep your hand out at the end of the conversation. You can say something like, “If you want to talk more about this later when you’ve calmed down, let me know.” Or “If you want to discuss this when you can talk to me more appropriately, I'll be here.” Always leave your hand out there.

Why You Should Never Fight on Your Child’s Level
When you get resentful and fight on your child's level, I think your position can actually become weaker than your child's. He will start to perceive you as not being in control. Soon, you won't have any way to really guide him or enforce household rules. If there's no structure there—no parental authority—then the only “tools” you’re left with are yelling, complaining, badgering, whining, bickering, arguing and nagging—all the things you don't want to do. Besides, think of it this way: you don't want to live with somebody like that and neither does your child.

It's important not to fight with your child on that level, because then there's no parent—it's just two individuals bickering. One of the ways you can lose your status as a parent very quickly is to act like a child. Parents have a hard time establishing and maintaining status in our society anyway—the role of parenting is completely undervalued today. So you don't want to give away what you’ve got —you really want to try to maintain your parental authority.

While I don’t think you should fight with your child, there's nothing wrong with getting angry at your kids from time to time. That’s human and it happens to every parent. But it’s important to have an outlet for that anger other than arguing and screaming. Remember, the question is not, “Do we get angry at our kids,” it’s “How do we handle the situation when we’re angry?” So when your child pushes your limits, make sure you have a plan to deal with that ahead of time: try to have other outlets where you can share your thoughts and feelings, like with your spouse, friends, relatives or a support group.

If you realize you haven’t been acting like the boss, but you want to begin to assert your authority now, be prepared for some extreme pushback from your children at first. Any change like this in family dynamics is not going to be dealt with coolly by your kids. Expect them to fight because they’re going to feel like they’re losing something they want to hold onto—power and control. But hold firm, and know that you’re doing the best thing for your family. Remember, the more tools you have as a parent, the better equipped you’ll be to raise your child—and to be the boss in a positive, effective way.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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