Parenting is not a Democracy

We’ve thankfully come a long way from the old days of kids should be “seen but not heard“, but have we gone too far? Possibly.

In the old days, there were clearly defined hierarchies within families. Children did not dare question the authority of their parents of if the did the backside got introduced to the parental hand or dreaded wooden spoon, They quickly learned not to challenge their parent’s again. Thankfully modern society has moved on from those times and we’re definitely more enlightened and progressive in how we parent our kids, so much so that its thankfully against the law now to smack or use force against children.

With marriage referendums being passed in Ireland, our concept of and definition of families has become much broader and inclusive than in the past. For the purposes of illustration I’m going to use what is probably still the most common family structure:

In this type of family structure we’ll have Dad & Mum that should be on an equal footing when it comes to the rank / hierarchy. This is important that both parents are on an equal footing as it reduces the risk of the kids splitting their parents when it comes to requests.

I often ask parents and kids if the kids really want something (treat, activity etc) who will they go to? In the majority of cases both parents and kids alike can identify immediately who is the “weak link” when it comes to giving in. In far too many cases do I hear kids feedback that it doesn’t matter which parent they ask the answer will likely be the same. Parental consistency can be a difficult thing to achieve, it’s tricky as parents to be consistently consistent.

As I’ve discussed in another post parent’s at the moment are under huge pressure to be “perfect” and not have children who experience or display perceived negative emotions like anger, sadness or disappointment. The practical reality of this pressure on parents is that in many cases they have become fearful of saying No. In ways I think it’s a hangover from our old national psyche in Ireland whereby we would be overly focused and anxious about “what would the neighbours think if they saw you behaving like that?”

Parent – Friend – Equal ?

In some situations parents will see or treat their kids as their equals or their friends. We give them lots and lots of choices, what would you like for dinner, what clothes would you like to wear today? Sounds good in theory, teaching a child autonomy and decision making skills. But, what happens when it’s baltic outside and our child picks out shorts and a t-shirt to wear? “but you asked me what I wanted to wear and I want to wear my football shorts!” We say no to the shorts, they kick off and we wonder where did that all come from? So when we say what would you like to wear today we assume that they will pick something warm and appropriate. What we also assumed was that they understand what we’re actually saying “Yes you can choose what you want to wear but I still retain the right to veto whatever you choose if I don’t think it’s appropriate for today”. Kids are good at lots of things, but mind reading tends not to be one of them!

Choice is good for kids but when they’re young it needs to be incremental. Would you like A or B. Your child might decide that they don’t like option A or B and kick off because they want option C. If they kick off there should never be an option C. If you introduce option C in response to a temper tantrum then in the child’s mind there will always be an option C, D, E, F and if I’m denied that option then I know what worked before in making my parent’s giving me those options so I’ll do that again, cue kid kicking off again.

That doesn’t mean that kids are bold. Its actually quite logical, it makes sense. Kicking off worked, it got me what I wanted so I’ll do it again. Younger children think in the moment, they want instant gratification of their needs. If they experience that screaming or lying on the ground kicking their legs gets them what they want then they would be mad not to do it, sure it works?

As adults we’re looking at this 4 year old absolutely mortifying us in the middle of the aisle in Tesco because we won’t give them the packet of jellies and we’re thinking:

  • Do they not realise how hard my day in work was today?
  • Can they not see how unreasonable they’re being?

Or first thing in the morning when they’re trying to negotiate for coco pops vs weetabix

  • Why can’t they see that we’ll be late if they don’t get dressed quickly and stop arguing with me?

I’ll let you in on a little secret, kids don’t think like that, they don’t see the world the same way as adults and if we expect that they will or they should then we’re going to have problems.

There are two other family structures that I come across quite a lot:

So in this scenario the young person either perceives themselves to be or actually is equivalent to their parents in terms of power and influence within the family. We often reinforce this through how we interact with our kids. We negotiate with them as equals on things that should never be negotiable. We try to convince them why they should want to go to school, what time they should go to bed at, debating and arguing over 10-15 minutes extra. It might seem like a small amount of time to give way on, not really a big deal or worth arguing over but the key piece here is what the child perceives is happening. What they hear and experience is that I have an equal input into this decision about what time bed is. If my view isn’t equal or I don’t have input into this decision then why is my parent negotiating with me?

Then there is a reality whereby the young person is so powerful within the family unit that again they perceive that or actually are in a position of power or are in charge in the family. Parent’s often talk to me about feeling like they need to take a “walking on eggshells” approach to interacting with their young person, fearful that they will make them upset / angry so we try to appease them. I’ve yet to meet a young person who is top of the pile in their family who is happy. If they were so happy being so powerful within their family then you’d have to reasonably ask the question why are they sitting down with me? It’s a question they always struggle to answer.

What kids who feel equivalent to or more powerful than their parents need, but are unable to recognise, understand or say is that they want and need their parents to step up, to take control, establish boundaries and make their lives predictable. Kids may believe that being powerful in their family at a young age is great, that it will make them happy, trust me it doesn’t and most will figure that out eventually. But at what cost to the relationships within their family?

I’ve reflected with young people when they reach age 17-18 and they can look back at that time in their lives when they were that powerful in their families and can only then (sometimes) recognise and see how unhappy they actually were when they were “all powerful” because of their behaviour.

When a parent recognises that this is a problematic dynamic and they try to re-establish a sense of control and re-orient the proper hierarchy they will inevitably be met with at the very least resistance, but more than likely an escalation in difficult behaviour. This is known as an extinction burst. An extinction burst happens when there is an increase in the frequency or intensity of the difficult behavior when a parent tries to put in limits on the young person’s behaviour.

A child or young person is not going to willingly or easily let go (and why should they? ) of this new found power and influence, so they escalate to get you to back down and maintain their status quo.

Here’s the bit for parents, unless you’re ready to survive and respond to the backlash when you implement the boundary and re-establish parental control then don’t try and put it in place just yet. I’ve spoken with parents who have told me that they’ve tried A, B, C, D methods of taking back control and that nothing worked. The main reason that it hasn’t worked for parents is that each time they tried to re-establish control the young person’s behaviour got more challenging so they backed down believing that their approach was unsuccessful. All this does is reinforce for the young person how powerful they are in the family unit compared to their parents as they got them to back down.

So how do we do it?

Saying take back control is one thing, but how do we actually approach the task once we’ve recognised that we need to do it? The first thing we need to do is to try our best to ensure that we’re aiming to be as consistent as we possibly can with the approach we’re planning on putting in place. We’re human and therefore we’re fallible and won’t always get things right. We all have our own experiences of how we were parented ourselves and we have different personalities, this is the real world. What we should be trying to aim for is approximately 75% consistency of approach in terms of managing behaviour from parents. This feels reasonable and realistic enough to aim for and takes into account our individual differences.

What we also need to do is agree as adults what behaviour it is we’re focussing on. Is it going to school, bed on time, attitude, how they speak to us, homework, chores, how long they’re on their phones? It’s important to try to resist the temptation to try and tackle all issues at the same time. No-one in the family home needs a battle every day over every thing. Pick at most the 1-2 things that mean the most to you as parents.

So back to the theme behind this blog, that parenting isn’t a democracy. In a democracy we ask the voters in a referendum if they’d like and agree to changes we propose to how we run things. As parents you don’t need a referendum to put boundaries in place. There will be no election to remove you from your role as parent.

What child is going to spontaneously stop playing the playstation and come to you and say that you know what I’ve played enough and I need to stop so I can go to bed get enough sleep / go outside and exercise / study for my exam because I know these things will be better for me. Highly unlikely to happen I think we’d all agree? They need us to put boundaries in place for them with clear and fair consequences if they refuse to comply. We don’t need to them to agree or like with the boundary, just to comply.

Consequences need to be agreed in advance between parents and again consequences aren’t up for negotiation. If you get stopped for speeding by the Gardai (Police) you generally won’t try to negotiate the size of the fine for speeding. You won’t be happy to pay the fine or that you got caught but you will generally and reluctantly accept the consequence for your decision and pay the fine.

So why do we need to establish and maintain familial hierarchies with our kids at all, why not accept and implement the idea of full democracy with our kids? Because that’s not reality. There are hierarchies in every aspect of our lives:

  • Sixth class is over 1st class
  • Moving from 6th class being top of the heap you go all the way to the bottom again in 1st year when the 6th years look down on you
  • No matter what year you’re in school the teachers are in charge
  • The principals are in charge of the teachers
  • The Gardai (Police) are in charge of how you drive on the road
  • Your boss in work decides what you do, how you do it
  • The government deciding how much tax we should pay

Learning to manage, cope with and accept hierarchies is a skill we need in life, the best place to learn that? In our family. Trust in yourself as a parent, your child needs you to.

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