I talk a lot in my lectures and coaching sessions about the child’s need for our calm, loving authority as parents. Let me clarify loud and clear that I mean authoritative parenting, not authoritarian parenting! In the authoritarian style of parenting, children’s unquestioning obedience is the goal — a short-sighted approach on every level, including optimally healthy development of the child’s social brain, which is the polestar of parenting for peace.
Authoritative parenting takes a longer view and is marked by the parents’ decisive yet respectful leadership role and their focus on connection, and builds an ever-deepening bond of loving trust between them and their children. It features the parent as a calm, loving authority figure who is grounded in his or her life, which is not balanced on the child as its fulcrum.
The Well-Intentioned Trap of “Child-Centered”
So many power struggles and discipline issues begin to arise in toddlerhood, and, as Continuum Concept author Jean Liedloff wrote, it is often because in their devotion to being good parents who respect their children, parents have “gone overboard in the other direction” in which they center their attention and activities on the child, rather than engaging in “adult activities that the children can watch, follow, imitate, and assist in as is their natural tendency.”[i]
I would invite you to incorporate into daily life some basic, hands-on activities that your child can watch, then imitate and help with. And to cultivate an inner, abiding confidence in your own authority; unlike in so many of today’s families, in which parents seem to have developed an aversive allergy to their children’s unhappiness or upset, your child needs to know that you will not be shaken by her crying, whining, or protests.
The Gift of a Calm, Confident Leader
We all know the feeling of being in a situation — a new class, a new job, a new city — in which we’re not quite sure what’s what. Where do we go, what do we do, who do we talk to? In those cases, it’s always a relief when someone on the scene confidently and reliably knows the score and kindly lends us authoritative guidance. It helps us relax and experience the new situation more fully, rather than being in the “on alert” state that tends to come over us when we’re unsure of things. For the toddler and young child, all of life is a new situation! Authoritative parenting is a great gift to the young child who wants a loving leader.
An important function of both a predictable routine and a dependable authority figure is that they provide a secure form that allows children to live in “dream consciousness,” a hallmark of the first seven years. Children need to be able to un-self-consciously and wholeheartedly participate in the day’s experiences without worrying about what comes next or what they need to be ready for. But these days it seems that even very young kids are savvy and in-the-know about everything that is going on in the household.
It is best if we don’t awaken the young child from her dream; therefore, we shouldn’t offer a stream of choices or involve her in democratic family policy-making. In my practice, and out in the world, I’ve come to see this as an epidemic — young children having too many choices and too much say in what takes place in the family. As with so many of our parenting missteps, giving a child this opportunity for autonomy errs not in its noble intention or even in its content, but in its time-frame: these choices and freedoms are not yet age-appropriate.
When we offer endless choices to the child … or engage in extended explanations, justifications or negotiations … or phrase our language in equivocal terms (“How about getting your PJs on?”) we undermine our standing with him. If you were to listen in on many a parent’s conversations with their young one, it wouldn’t take long to hear what is in my opinion a most damaging (when used with a question mark) four-letter word for a child: Okay. As in, “It’s time to get ready for bed now, okay?” And then there’s the friendly four-word discipline-disaster-in-the-making, “Do you want to…” As in “Do you want to get your sweater so we can go to school?”
The Child Without a Leader Becomes…”Difficult”
Talking to a young child in this way essentially enlists him as a co-decision-maker, with a level of influence and responsibility that makes him extremely anxious — though he doesn’t know why. This anxiety and insecurity (“Mom doesn’t really know what should happen now…”) reorients his biochemistry and neurophysiology toward protection rather than growth. Also, the young child learns first and foremost through imitation, so if you negotiate and debate with her, she will soon get better at it than you!
This is a vicious cycle: the more the child perceives that you are looking to her to participate in important decisions (and to a young child even the basics seem very important), the less trust she’ll have in you, the more insecure she will feel, and the more controlling (i.e., “difficult”) she will become. This can lead to loss of respect and turning away from the parent later on.
The sad thing is, children naturally want to please the adults to whom they feel connected, and the child who has become rigid and demanding due to this kind of insidious insecurity desperately (though unconsciously) does not want to act like that. She fervently wants you, her parent, to be the calm, loving authoritative parent she can look up to, rely upon, and joyfully follow!
Indeed, the word “discipline” is related to the word “disciple,” a “joyful follower.” If you can stand centered as the calm, loving authority figure, your child will relax and take joy in following you; discipline will not be nearly the issue it is for many families.
The Challenge of Authoritative Parenting
What I find so often in my practice is that parents bump up against tremendous inner resistance and insecurity when they begin to step into that place of calm authority. This is when their own programming from when they were young children kicks in and suddenly they’re being driven (unconsciously) by such guiding convictions as “I’m not worthy of being listened to,” or “I have no impact upon my world.” Thus, they feel little confidence in their own ability to lead, and fall back on cultural parenting conventions based on coercion, manipulation, placating, shaming, etc. These are authoritarian parenting approaches that do not support their children’s optimal flourishing.[ii]
Over-explaining almost always covers up a lack of truth or conviction in the exchange. We need to always check the reason why we want to say something to a child: Is it based on our wisdom or our anxiety? If it comes from a place of real knowing and complete conviction within you that it is correct, the child will usually behave in harmony with it. (A good example is that children almost never fuss over putting on seat belts, largely because within the mind of the parent there is 100% conviction: seat belts are an utter non-negotiable and the child picks up on this conviction.) If it’s coming from worry or insecurity, we best refrain from speaking. Yes, we’re still feeling the fear, but it is your self-discipline in containing the feeling the child picks up on.
Not Perfection, But Striving
Indeed, when we are engaged in the process of growing our own inner life, that is a lesson for our children. They pick up on it. They bask in it. One of the newer findings from attachment neurobiology is that what we say is far less important than who we are, and this is one of the reasons: The way in which we manage the ebb and flow of our own feelings and impulses, our mastery of the currents of our inner lives, is what makes the greatest impression on the child, rather than the content of the currents themselves. This is good news: as Nancy Jewel Poer says, it is not our perfection but our striving that influences our children!
I have found it remarkably helpful — sometimes downright transformative** — for a parent to envision, in great detail, herself in a typical discipline situation with her child that doesn’t tend to go well… and then to “revise the scene”: see herself responding as the calm, loving, and self-assured mother she would choose to be. Ditto father. We know from sports psychology how powerful such visualizing can be, as well as following the basic tenet of “Fake it till you can make it.” Think of a parenting figure you admire, even a character from a book or movie, and adopt him or her as your own role model to emulate; this may help you elevate yourself to the level of confidence, inner poise and perspicacity that your child dearly hopes to find in you.
This renegotiation and enrichment of your own inner life is one of the best investments you can make in your child’s blossoming, and will organically assist you as you pursue the noble endeavor of authoritative parenting.
**This is why I have finally made available on audio my most popular parent coaching session, which includes guided imagery as I’ve described above: Calm Authority for Mothers.
[i] Liedloff, Jean. “Who’s in Control? The Unhappy Consequences of Being Child-Centered.” In Pathways to Family Wellness. Philadelphia, PA: Int’l Chiropractic Pediatric Assn., 2005. http://icpa4kids.org/Wellness-Articles/whos-in-control-the-unhappy-consequences-of-being-child-centered.html.
[ii] Grille, Robin. Parenting for a Peaceful World. NSW, Australia: Longueville, 2005.
About Marcy Axness
I’m the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers,” and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”