One of the questions that parents regularly ask is ‘how can I get my child to behave, to listen, to do what I ask? All parents struggle with this at one time or another, sometimes most of the time. Before giving a quick answer or strategy, it may be helpful for us first to take a step back and turn the question round, to ask; why do children behave, listen and do what they are asked to do? There are three reasons:
- Children behave (most of the time) because they recognize that they are in a relationship with their parents. They value the relationship and don’t want to damage it. The relationship between children and their parents is something that is built on over time. These are the building blocks of love, trust, connection and belonging.
- Children behave when they know what the limits and boundaries are and what is expected of them. They need to know what the rules of the house are and these need to be consistent. If you let children jump on the furniture on Monday and get angry with them for doing it on Tuesday, they will reckon that it’s not really a firm rule.
- Children behave when they know who is in charge and who takes responsibility for the family. This always must be the parents.
The Golden Non-Negotiables
These days parents often become confused about being in charge, having rules and standing firm. They may want to do things differently from their parents, because their parents’ punishments may have been too harsh, or too arbitrary, as in ‘do what I say because I say so’. There is no need for a full set of rules and regulations, only three. These are the non-negotiables and they are always:
Parents must ensure their children’s health and safety, and must act when it comes to situations that put them at risk. So that means for example that children need a healthy diet, not junk food and if they are young children they need to hold a parent’s hand when crossing the road. These non-negotiables change as children grow, but they should always remain a reference point. When your teenager wants to attend a party where there is no parental oversight and you have no idea who will be there then ‘no’ is non-negotiable.
Civility is about everyone in the family treating each other respectfully and reminding each other when they don’t. Parents are not rubbish bins and dumping grounds for all their children’s emotions. By the same token children deserve to be spoken to in a respectful manner as well, and not yelled at or belittled.
Having and using authority as parents
Parents often ask, ‘what do I do when my child says you’re not the boss of me?’ The short answer to this is that parents are and must be the bosses of their children because they are held responsible when anything happens to their child. This means that they must assume authority. Having authority as a parent should not be confused with being authoritarian. It may sound like a joke but the parent can say to their child when challenged about being the boss, ‘by virtue of the power invested in me I am responsible for you and therefore I must assume authority for you’. This means that parents do not need to go in search of authority because it is already invested in them.
How this is all connected?
When parents assume authority, and are really convinced that they are in charge they speak with a different voice. Children overall don’t just want to be naughty. They want to be loved and looked after and they want to do the right thing. Valuing the relationship and putting in place appropriate limits and boundaries is far better than putting in place ‘consequences’ such as sending children to their room and punishing them by taking things out of their room or forbidding them to attend a sporting event or birthday party. Most of these ‘strategies’ have very little effect.
Parents as mentors
Children don’t come into the world knowing how to behave, and rely on their parents to help them to become social beings. We would not expect a new recruit to a job to know the ropes of how things work in the new workplace. Someone would generally be assigned to help them settle in. Children similarly need parents to be mentors to guide them through the path of social development, rather than expecting them to understand how to behave from the start. Emotional and social development is a balancing act and practice makes perfect. We want to set children up to succeed, not to fail, so acting as mentors in this important balancing act helps them on their way.