Parenting Therapy: Who Are You That This Child Should Listen To You And Your Rules?
When working with parents in my NYC therapy practice, I often invite them to think about the following question: Who are you that this child should listen to you? It’s not intended at all to be smug, though I respect that it can tend to come off that way. When kids are quite little, the question doesn’t matter much. Over time, though, it becomes more relevant, especially related to your child listening to and following rules.
We could cite all kinds of reasons why a child should listen to his or her parents: The parent is older and wiser. They have earned that respect. It’s the proper way that a child should relate to his or her parents. All of these are fine answers, but what I’ve found to be the most compelling reasons for the child center around the question of influence.
Parental Authority Has Its Place, But Influence Can Be More Powerful
Typically we use the word rule, especially with children, as a stand-in for externally imposed. It’s based on authority and determined outside of the relationship, as opposed to mutually created. Authority (to define the term for this purpose) is often based on position or status (i.e. “I’m Mom, so you have to listen to me”), physical power (“I’m bigger than you so you better listen”), societal power (“I have stature in the world, as an adult, and you, as a child, do not. So what I say goes”), or material consequences (“I’ll take away your allowance/iPad/car/privileges”). To be incredibly clear, authority has its place in parenting. When it comes to high stakes matters, it’s important for parents to exercise it.
But, influence is infinitely more powerful, more sustainable and less painfully exercised. It also takes much more effort to build. Building power rather than exerting it is always more powerful. Influence doesn’t mean you’re giving up being in charge or you’re acting as your kid’s friend rather than his or her parent. It’s partnering, building and inspiring.
Building Influence By Co-Creating Rules
One way to build influence with your kid is by co-creating rules. A lot of elementary school teachers will have their class in the first few weeks of school create rules together, but it’s almost always a ruse–the teacher has his or her finger on the scale, so to speak. What I’m talking about here is offering children a genuine opportunity to build rules with their parents.
Co-creating rules is like building a blanket fort–kids have some say in where the walls go and what blanket goes where. It’s not the same as deciding whatever they want. Co-creating rules doesn’t mean kids get to say, “We have ice cream for breakfast and only take baths on Thursdays.” Parents need to take a tough stance on points that are non-negotiable.
How Can I Co-Create Rules With My Kid?
How can you offer kids an opportunity to create rules with you? With a younger child, for example, ask, “Should we brush your teeth before or after your bath?” or “In what order should we pack up your backpack for school?” Make a chart to remind him or her of what you both decided to do in the evening or before school.
With an older child, acknowledge they are getting older. You know how important it is for them to hang out with their friends but, at the same time, you, as their parents, don’t feel it’s safe for them to go out after dark. Ask them, “How should we sort that out?” and work out a plan together.
Co-Creating Rules Gives Kids More Ownership And Sets Them Up To Create Rules For Themselves As Adults
When the rule gets bumped into (and they always get bumped into), parents can say, “Hey, we decided to do it this way” and mean it. By co-creating rules, there’s more understanding of the rule and why it’s important. Essentially, your kid has more ownership of it.
There’s also a separate developmental issue at play here. One task of adulthood is making rules. Yes, adults make rules for others (including kids), but we also make rules for ourselves. For example, you might always pay rent on the first of the month. You may always wear dress shoes on a job interview. You take the recycling out on Tuesdays, send thank you cards when you get a gift, don’t go home with a guy after the first date and lock your door when you come in for the night.
All these rules need negotiation. They need to be built, even rules for adults. By offering to co-create rules with your kid, you start setting them up early to build rules for themselves.