Last time you suggested some ways to re-establish parental authority once it’s been discredited in the eyes of the kids. How are we to know whether or not we’ve reached that point?
Want a simple test of parental authority? Next time your child does something wrong or bad — wait, I must briefly digress. Can we still use words like “bad” or “wrong” in our value-neutral culture? Must we morally antisepticise the language, as some experts assert? “Blade, putting the ice pick in your sister’s foot is inappropriate conduct.” No, it’s bad. Just ask his sister.
Next time your youngster acts badly or wrongly, set up a field experiment. In an even tone of voice, one time, levy a consequence. “Eve, you are being very disrespectful. Head for your room; your night is over.” “I asked you three times to clean the bathroom, Hazel. You ignored me all three times. You now have two hours of labor. Let’s begin immediately.” “Webster, you will write a 400-word apology to your teacher for getting a detention in her class.”
Once only, calmly, discipline. Then step back and observe what happens. Is there cooperation? A look of disbelief? Relentless negotiation and defense? An outright argument? A look saying, “I’ll comply, but you and everybody else will pay for the next six hours”? A fit? Stomping? More misbehavior? Leaving the timeout corner 26 times? A posture that says, “You and what army”?
Put simply, how does your child react to your assertion of authority? In large measure this will tell you how he views your credibility to wield authority. I am convinced that a child’s response when disciplined is more affected by his perception of his parent than by even his temperament. Routinely parents call children strong-willed who are not. Their conduct is emboldened by their perception of Mom or Dad as weak-willed. In essence, the more a youngster believes that our discipline is questionable or challengeable, the stronger-willed will be his resistance to it.
So how do parents overall score on the authority test? As a discipline teacher for more than 25 years, my results say that the average American parent with the average American child does not get cooperation without resistance, ranging from verbal to physical.
If the kids resist in word or deed, you can pretty safely conclude they don’t see you as having confident, legitimate authority. The good news: You can change this perception if you change you.
I believe without doubt that a generation or two ago, more parents passed the test. Why? Again, perception. Kids viewed parents — indeed, most grownups — as having legitimate authority. That’s because the grownups also viewed it that way, and acted accordingly. The irony is that, if a parent has authority in a child’s mind, she doesn’t have to assert it very often.
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