I once had a parent of a two-year-old come to daycare holding a penny (which was not allowed because it is a choking hazard).
Her mother’s excuse? “I just couldn’t get it away from her.”
This is an example of a child being given authority over their parent.
I saw this countless times throughout my time as a daycare teacher. There is no reality in which a perfectly capable mother cannot retrieve a small item from the hand of their preschooler. But sometimes parents put authority in the hands of their children without realizing what they’re doing, and the impact it can have on their relationship with that child.
Now, let’s be clear about what I’m talking about. There is a difference between empowering children to independence and giving children authority over parents.
Empowering children to independence means helping them learn to do things for themselves and become successful. Giving children authority over parents is when the natural order of things is reversed, which puts the children at risk.
Children having authority over parents is not healthy, and It’s not safe. Parents are in place to help children learn. Authority is required in order to be a good teacher, and a good parent.
There are several ways in which parents inadvertently put the authority in their children’s hands, in the process undermining their own parental authority over their children. Here are some examples.
Failing to follow through with discipline
This is a big one that we all know about, but still slip up on all the time. It’s hard work following through with every consequence we lay out! But when we fail to administer consequences for stated disobediences, we forfeit our own authority. Our failure to act tells children that we do not have the power to do what we say we will.
Part of maintaining parental authority is disciplining children. It’s not the fun part, but it is necessary to guide children into becoming successful adults.
Here are three simple ways to help you maintain consistency.
Keep accountable with your spouse
Your spouse is your absolute best resource when it comes to following through with discipline. You both need to be on the same page (yes, this can be difficult when one of you tends to be more permissive and the other more authoritarian!). Hold each other accountable to following through with your word and administering appropriate consequences when necessary.
Don’t make a lot of rules
This is easier said than done, I know. It often seems like when children are misbehaving, the solution is to make a rule for each thing they do wrong and then set consequences for it. The problem is, you can’t remember all of the rules and consequences and neither can they! If your children can’t remember the rules because there are so many, how can they be expected to follow them?
Make it easier on yourself and on them. Pick out the behaviors which need to be worked on the most and set easy-to-understand consequences for negative behavior. Then follow through with them. As the behaviors are extinguished, you can move on to a different problem.
Figure out which behaviors really deserve discipline and which ones are just children being children. For instance, disrespectful back-talking and hitting can be put in the “require discipline” category, while taking off their shoes in public and forgetting to use a spoon at mealtime can be chalked up to their age. They can be reminded to keep their shoes on and use a spoon, but it probably doesn’t require a time out every time they forget.
[see my full post on making rules that will actually be followed here]
Don’t make threats you won’t keep
Don’t say you’re going to throw all your children’s toys away if they leave them out in the living room one more time. You know you won’t actually follow through with it (I hope you won’t! That’s a little extreme). Instead, when you assign consequences for a behavior, make sure that the punishment fits the behavior. That way, when you warn them what will happen if the behavior continues, you can be truthful.
Never letting them cry
I know I’m going to get backlash about this one. But hear me out.
Never letting a child cry is not fair to them. It prevents them from experiencing and dealing with emotions that they need to learn to deal with. But how does it undermine parental authority?
Simple. The only way you are never letting a child cry is if you are catering to their every whim. Which makes you that child’s servant, not their parent. They hold the authority, not you.
Children will test boundaries. They will see how far they can get with you. Of course they are going to ask for the ice cream cone. Will they cry when they don’t get it? Probably. And yes, it can be hard to see those big brown eyes well up with tears and see that pouty little lip start to tremble. But it isn’t healthy for children to have everything they want.
As a parent, you have to accept that sometimes children have to cry in order to learn life lessons. Your job as a parent is to guide them, and you can’t do that if they are the ones with the authority in your relationship.
Allowing slow obedience
My father used to say “Slow obedience is disobedience”. Obviously as a child I never liked that phrase, because it called out exactly what I was doing. Rebelling.
I didn’t want to be punished, but I also didn’t want to do exactly what I was being told. The solution? Slow obedience.
Here are some examples of slow obedience that I see parents accept and put up with all of the time:
“After I finish this game/episode/chapter.”
“I’ll do it later/tomorrow/next year.”
Doing a myriad of other things, or purposefully getting distracted before doing what the parent asked.
It’s all very well to ask politely “May I get to a stopping point in my book, and then clean my room?” That is acknowledging the parents authority to decide. But when a child decides the terms upon which they obey, that is taking authority away from you as a parent.
Slow obedience is disobedience, and it needs to be treated as such because you are in charge – not your children.
This one is tough. It just kind of sneaks in.
One minute you’re assigning chores; the next you find yourself picking up after a tornado ran through the house.
You already know that teaching children responsibility is an important life skill. But have you considered that when you fail to enforce responsibility in children, you are compromising your own authority as a parent? You are telling children that they can make a mess and you will clean it for them. Or they can slack off on their schoolwork and you will make excuses for them.
That puts them in charge and you are at their beck and call.
Putting in the extra effort in the short term to teach children what is their responsibility to get done, increasing those responsibilities as they get older and more capable, will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.
Not only will they learn how to take care of themselves, but they will also learn to respect the assignments you give them. That means less work for you! Hurray!
I honestly don’t understand how parents tolerate this. You have been given authority by God over your children. Allowing them to talk disrespectfully, or act insolently towards you is just wrong.
This includes but is not limited to: backtalk, bossiness, rudeness, hitting, kicking, spitting, willful disobedience, name calling, and the silent treatment.
When you ignore your child’s disrespect towards you, you are in essence giving them permission to trample on your rights as a parent.
“Honour your father and mother” is one of the Ten Commandments. Help children learn respect for authority by starting in the home.
But respect isn’t just the responsibility of the children. 1 Timothy 3:4 talks about managing one’s home and children in a way that is worthy of respect. I believe that children owe respect to their parents simply because it is the right thing to do. However, you make their job so much easier when you behave in a way that is worthy of respect.