YOU Are In Charge, Not Your Child

It used to be that children were meant to be “seen and not heard.” They were meant to mind their manners, follow orders, and grow up into adults as quickly as possible so they could stop being so annoying and start helping out around the house for goodness sake. But now we have a more nuanced view of children (as well we should). We see them as individuals, with ideas, feelings, needs, and wants. We see them as valuable and interesting, funny and smart. We encourage them to express themselves, think critically, develop empathy, and share their preferences.

In general, I think this change is a good one. Ten years as an elementary school teacher (and two and half years as a mom) have taught me that children are individuals worthy of our attention. And teaching them that this is true helps them grow into adults who are more prepared for today’s world. (Not to mention the fact that, as a teacher and a mom, I’d much rather talk to children and engage both our minds, than at them and bore us both to death.)

But one (probably unintended) consequence of this shift is the confusion many parents (and even some teachers!) now seem to feel about who’s actually in charge. See, if we now believe that children ought to have some agency and control in their lives, we’re going to start offering them more choice (which is a good thing). So, for example, we might say to little Johnny (or whoever) “It’s time to get dressed, do you want to wear your Mickey Mouse shirt or your Lion King shirt?” It really doesn’t matter to you which shirt he picks, but Johnny feels that he has some control over his life and gets dressed much more willingly than if you’d just shoved the Mickey shirt over his head when he actually wanted Simba.

Except, what happens when it really isn’t a choice? Like when Johnny wants to eat a bunch of Goldfish crackers half an hour before dinner? Or when he wants to watch more TV even though his allotted half an hour has passed? Or what about when he wants to keep playing but you’ve got to go to the grocery store or you’ll have no food for dinner? That, I think, is where people tend to get a little mixed up.

Let me be as clear as possible: you are in charge, not your child. The idea that children have preferences, ideas, and desires does not extend so far as to make them equal to adults. Their brains are still developing. Their sense of logic is skewed, at best, and nonexistent at worst. They haven’t fully internalized social etiquette, empathy, or honesty. They have no moral code. You must teach them these things. And you do it by providing boundaries, clear and consistent consequences for breaking the boundaries, and by demonstrating appropriate ways to behave in society.

So, if Johnny wants to eat a bunch of Goldfish crackers right before dinner, the answer is “No.” It doesn’t matter that he really, really wants the crackers. In this instance (and in lots of other instances too), you know things that he doesn’t. You know that, if he eats the crackers now he won’t be hungry later. He doesn’t know that. He just knows he’s hungry now. He doesn’t know that too much TV isn’t good for his brain. He just knows it’s really funny when Donald Duck falls down the stairs. He doesn’t care that there won’t be food for dinner if you don’t go to the grocery store. He wants to play with trucks! He’s a person, yes. But he’s also a child. And children need guidance, support, and structure.

And, yes, saying no to your child will probably lead to a few tantrums. He’ll scream, he’ll yell, he’ll fall prostrate on the floor and kick and flail. Because he is a person and he does have desires of his own so he’s going to express them in the only way he knows how. But giving in (because you mistakenly feel that you ought to be taking his opinion into consideration) will get you nowhere. Actually, it’ll get you worse than nowhere since it will just reinforce this type of behavior.

One way you can respect your child as a human being is to teach him how to act like one. You want your child to be someone who follows the rules, who is courteous and polite, who exhibits good self-control and empathy towards others. And he learns these things from you in a variety of ways. But one of them (a very important one of them) is through the discovery that you, not he, are in charge here. This provides him with a safe environment in which to learn about the world, and clear guidelines for how to live in it.

Do listen to your child, validate his opinion, and offer choices where appropriate, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that means he gets a say in every situation. Parenting is not a democracy. Whether you like it or not, you’re in charge. And, secretly, your child is very glad you are.