Children develop and mature best with parents who practice benevolent authority in the home. Children gain a sense of security knowing their parents not only have power, but use that power to establish and enforce a loving structure in the home. Still, not just any authority will do. Children benefit most from a benevolent authority in their life, not a harsh or permissive authority. If we want to establish a benevolent authority in our home, we must include these six ingredients:
Relationship is the first and foremost ingredient in building a strong parental authority. Authority flows from relationship. The knowledge that we love our children no matter what they do or say gives us a legitimate authority in their eyes. A strong loving relationship with our children gives our authority credibility. Build your relationships with your children and you strengthen your authority in their lives as well.
Next, add a healthy dose of empathy and compassion to create a strong and healthy parental authority. When we love our children, we hurt when they hurt. We want to relieve their suffering and ease their struggle. At times, we will relive their suffering; at other times we will let them suffer the consequences of their actions because we love them. Even then we will empathize with their disappointments and discomfort. They will recognize our empathy, even if they never admit it to us. I have heard many people note that the worst part of being disciplined by a loving parent is seeing the hurt in their parent’s eyes. Our compassion and empathy for our children adds weight to our authority in their eyes.
Parental authority also demands a generous dose of longsuffering. We do not use the term “longsuffering” very much today. However, longsuffering, in combination with compassion, is an important ingredient in parental authority. We hate to see our children suffer, even when that suffering results from their own choices and actions. We suffer long when we lovingly allow our children to experience the consequences of their choices and actions. But, that “longsuffering” pays great dividends over time. When we allow longsuffering to temper our compassion, we will witness our children maturing through the consequences of their actions and choices. The ability to not jump in to rescue our children, but to “suffer long” instead, strengthens our authority as wise and sacrificial parents.
Brevity and an economy of words will add oomph to our parental authority as well. Yelling, lecturing, and nagging will minimize our authority. If our children learn we will say something over and over (lecturing, nagging), they quit listening. If they know we are not going to follow through until we yell, they will wait for us to yell before taking action. In other words, our children learn our words have no weight and carry no power when we yell, lecture, or nag. When we simply state an expectation without lecturing, nagging, or yelling, our words become authoritative. When we follow our words with simple consequences, our children learn we have authority, our words have meaning. And, they learn to listen. They learn to respect authority.
A similar ingredient in parental authority is silence. Yes; silence is powerful. Silence allows our children time to think and process what was requested or expected. As our children think and process, they internalize the values and expectations we are teaching them in silence. Give them space to think.
The final, but not the least, ingredient in parental authority is consistency. A parent with a strong authoritative presence will consistently relate to their children with compassion and longsuffering, making requests and stating expectation with an economy of words. Sure, we will make mistakes; but consistent effort will strengthen a healthy, loving authority our relationship with our children.
A healthy parental authority does not come easy. It flows from relationship and is strengthened by consistent compassion and longsuffering. Practice it wisely and you and your children will find great benefits.
Some things are difficult to say. They leave us vulnerable and at the mercy of the other person. These same phrases, however, are often the statements most necessary to preserve and strengthen our relationships with our spouses, children, and parents. These difficult statements are actually treasures of the heart that we protect with great caution. Let me share some of these treasures—difficult statements that can strengthen your family relationships even though we struggle to give them voice. Practice them as often as needed.
You were right.
I was wrong.
I need your help.
I don’t know.
Will you forgive me?
I deserve what I get because I really messed up.
I’m letting this go. (And then really doing it.)
I forgive you.
Good-bye. (i.e., to a family member leaving for college.)
I do. (As in “who gives this woman to be married?” “I do.”)
Let me end with a quote from Stephen King that describes difficult words to say…and the need to state them.
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” –Stephen King
Did you ever see “The Colour Changing Card Trick” on YouTube? It is a cool card trick…and so much more. In fact, the “so much more” makes the trick astounding and teaches us an important lesson about family. Take a short 2 minutes and 43 seconds to watch “The Colour Changing Card Trick” in the video below. You won’t be disappointed. Then read what this trick taught me about family.
People learn and grow; they mature and change. More to the point, your spouse, children, and parents learn and grow. They mature and change. Taking the time to recognize and acknowledge how they learn, grow, and change honors them. Adjusting our response in accordance with their growth also honors them and communicates respect for them. Unfortunately, we often miss the real changes, the significant growth, because we focus on some small aspect of their life or behavior that has irritated us. We focus on the “cards” and miss the all the changing shirts, table cloths, and back drops. Let me give some examples.
We recall the time a family member was late in picking us up and tell that story for years, but never acknowledge how many times they were there for us when we needed them…or how they have grown more responsible over the years.
We focus on a family member’s angry reaction to some pet peeve and neglect to recognize how patient they have become in the last year or how patient they have always been in so many other areas.
We constantly talk about our children’s messy room while ignoring how well they clean their dishes, the car they drive, or the desk they study at.
We bring up the time a family member said something obviously wrong (“Is this chicken…or is this fish? I know its tuna, but it says ‘Chicken of the Sea.’) while neglecting to acknowledge how intelligent they are and how much more knowledgeable they have grown.
I’m not saying we need to let inappropriate behavior run amok in our families. Inappropriate behavior needs addressed. But, we show respect and honor when we recognize how our family members have changed and matured. Take a look at the “big picture,” the whole picture. Notice the changes your spouse and children have made. Admire their maturing character. Acknowledge new behaviors and attitudes they have developed in response to lessons learned. Notice the changing colors of their life as it grows ever more mature. It’s a great way to show honor and respect.
I often meet children described as having “anger management problems.” They blow up in anger, yell, and scream. They may even get physically aggressive. As I talk with them and their family, I discover these children often have little or no language for emotional expression. As a result, they have no delay, no buffer, between their emotion and their action. They impulsively “act out” any emotion they experience. Anger impulsively leads to aggression. Joy and excitement translate into uncontrollable energy. When these children and their families learn to put their emotions into words and, even more important, learn to connect with one another through their emotion, impulsive acting out often decreases. Self-control increases. Mutual understanding and intimacy grows. In reality, these children did not have anger management problems. They had limited emotional expression problems. Fortunately, parents play a huge role in teaching their children to put emotions and feelings into words. I say fortunately because that means you, as a parent, can help your children learn this skill. So, put on your coach’s hat and get down to the business of emotional coaching with these tips.
Accept your children’s emotions. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: all emotions are acceptable. Whether your children experience happiness or sadness, pleasure or anger, allow them to have their emotional experience. Accept their emotion. (By the way, the Pixar movie Inside Out does an excellent job of showing the benefits of allowing the experience of every emotion.) Do not judge or evaluate your children’s emotions. Doing so may leave them feeling like something is wrong with them. Simply accept their emotion. Sure, put limits on the behavioral expression of that emotion (“You can be angry, but we do not hit”), but be open to their experience. Allow them to experience all their emotions.
Explore the emotion and the context in which it occurs. Become curious about your children’s emotional experience. Where do they feel that emotion in their body—their stomach, head, arms, legs? Does it make them feel better or worse? Is it heavy or light? What happened right before they experienced the emotion? What are they thinking? What is the priority revealed in the emotion? Answering questions like these requires you to focus on what is happening “inside” your children, not just their outward behavior. Your goal is to listen and understand their emotion so well that you can completely empathize with it from their young perspective.
Keep your interaction as conversational and intimate as possible. Avoid lecturing and explaining. Spend more time listening, clarifying, and understanding. If you lecture, your children will shut down. Their eyes will glaze over and their mind will drift. You will have missed an excellent opportunity to connect with them. Keep it conversational.
As your children begin to calm, encourage them to think more about their emotion. Help them to recognize the priority, need, or desire behind the emotion. Think through possible actions they could take to actually satisfy that need or effectively communicate their priority. In essence, problem-solve an effective response to the situation that aroused their emotion.
Empower your children with appropriate labels for their emotions. The ability to label an emotion carries great power. A label allows people to express their emotion rather than impulsively act it out. People who can label and communicate their emotions have a better chance at investing their emotional energy in reaching a satisfactory result rather than expending the energy on physically acting out.
Encourage your children to recognize how their actions impact those around them. Make them aware of the emotions displayed by those who witness their behavior. Gently point out the subtle cues of how others respond to them. This teaches them to recognize those cues independently and adjust their interaction accordingly.
We could list other tips, but these six provide a great start. If you want more information on emotions and your children, read Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, an excellent book by John Gottman.
I often hear parents tell their children, “Dream big; you can become anything you want.” This encouragement, although well intended, misses the mark. It provides incomplete and even inaccurate information to our children. Think about it. Can anyone really become anything they want? I suggest we continue to encourage our children to dream big, but modify that encouragement, expand it to include some helpful information. I suggest we try changing to sayings like these three…all three beginning with “Dream Big….”
Dream Big and Be Prepared to Work Hard. Dreams do not bring success; hard work does. We need to encourage our children to work hard in reaching for their dreams. We need to teach them that reaching for the big dream requires tradeoffs and sacrifices. Effort invested in the area of any big dream will result in less effort in another area. Any big dream will demand sacrifices in time, energy, and even possibly lifestyle. The effort our children invest in their big dream deserves our acknowledgment and recognition. Their effort, not simply their dream, will move them closer to their goals. Their effort, not the dream, brings success. So “dream big and work hard!”
Dream Big and Celebrate Every Step. Our children need to learn that big dreams are achieved by taking one little step at a time. Teaching our children to set smaller goals that lead to bigger achievements will help them reach their big dream. Our children need to learn that each step toward the big dream, each little goal achieved, represents a significant accomplishment. Celebrate the effort it took to take that step.
Dream Big but Be Realistic. “You can become anything you want” is not really true; it is inaccurate. For example, consider these stats from NCAA research:
Only .03% of high school seniors playing basketball will get drafted by the NBA. That works out to 3 out of 10,000.
Only .08% of high school seniors playing football will get drafted by the NFL. That means 8 out of every 10,000.
Face it, not everyone has what it takes to become a pro athlete…or musician, engineer, chef, or anything else. Our children cannot really become whatever they want. It is even less likely they will become what we want. Instead, we need to help them take a realistic look at their strengths, abilities, interests, and weaknesses. With a realistic self-concept, we can encourage them to dream big…in the right area. We can help them develop a big dream that coincides with their strengths, abilities, and interests.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for telling our children to dream big and shoot for the stars. But as we encourage our children to dream big, we need to give them the complete picture:
Do you want to have a family filled with celebration and joyful intimacy? Start by becoming a straight “A” family. I’m not talking about grades. I’m talking about attitude. A truly happy
and healthy family exhibits four “A’s” in their attitude: Acceptance, Admiration, Appreciation, and Accountability. Don’t jump to any conclusions about your standing in these four “A’s.” Instead, take a moment to review the brief questions below to think about each of “A” and your family standing in relation to each one. You might find your family strong in each area. You might also find various areas where you would like to grow (I know I did).
Do you accept each other’s different taste in music, food, clothing, TV shows, etc.?
Do you take the time to learn about your spouse’s/children’s/parents’ interests, even if they are different than your own?
Do you allow your five-year-old to leave home after dressing themselves in non-matching clothes or do you have to re-dress them? How about allowing your teen to get the haircut or hair color they desire?
How do you let your spouse/children know you love them when you are angry or disappointed with their behavior or decision?
Do you avoid comparisons?
Name three things you admire about each of your parents.
Name three things you admire about your spouse.
Name three things you admire about each of your siblings.
What attribute have you most recently admired in your spouse/children/parent?
When did you last tell your spouse/children one thing you admire about them—today, yesterday, last week, last month? If it was last week or longer, better do it again.
How often do you say “thank you” when you ask your spouse or children to do something?
How do you mark the milestones and achievements of your spouse and children?
How do you acknowledge the strengths of your spouse/children?
Write down three different ways you can communicate appreciation to each family member?
How did you teach your children to do their currently assigned chores?
Do you practice the behaviors and values you want your family to emulate in areas of anger management, accepting responsibility for mistakes, apologizing, forgiving, politeness, etc.?
Name two consequences you have used in the last month with your children. How did these consequences specifically teach the values you want to pass on to your family?
I see some areas of personal need as I write these questions. Although I’m not too upset (after all, family is a place of constant growth), I better get to work in order to improve. That will set a good example of accountability for my family as well. I also see areas in which I believe I do fairly well. How about you?
I have a friend who likes to ask about my holidays. I especially remember his question about Thanksgiving. Rather than saying “How was your Thanksgiving turkey?” he places a strategic pause in the question to make it “How was your Thanksgiving, Turkey?” That one minor pause changes the whole character and meaning of the question. The pause has the power to create humor…or subtly insult the listener. We must use it with caution in our family conversations to avoid insulting one another.
A slightly different scenario plays out with my wife and me on occasion. The other day, for example, she said, “I hate that. Can’t you change?” I was stymied. My mind began to race through the current conversation and the previous two days. What did I do? What does she want me to change? Why am I the one who always has to change anyway? What about…? Suddenly, she interrupted my racing thoughts by finishing her question with the words “…the TV channel?” Oh, relief flowed through my body as I realized she didn’t like the TV show coming on and she wanted me to change the channel. An ill-placed pause left room for my insecurities and racing mind to jump to the wrong conclusions. The pause has the subtle power to create misunderstandings.
Just the other day I had another experience with the power of the pause…a slightly different experience. My wife and I were talking about my daughter moving in to an apartment with her friends. I was faced with a difficult choice: take an unpaid vacation to help her or let her and my wife handle it alone so I could work. I wanted to help my daughter but finances are tight. Frustration gave intensity to my voice. I’m sure I sounded angry and my wife most likely felt my anger pointed toward her. In a moment of wisdom, I sat back and quit talking. In the pause of that silence I could take a breath and collect my thoughts. “I want to be there for our daughter,” I said. My wife replied, “You’re going to miss her aren’t you?” It was true. A pause, my silence and my wife’s willingness to wait through that silence, brought clarity to our conversation and my emotions. It allowed us to understand and connect. It brought us closer. Yes, the pause has great power for good as well. The pause allows for the building of intimacy and understanding.
The power of the pause can result in pain or joy. It has the power to disconnect or build greater intimacy. Be aware of the mighty power of the pause…and use it wisely!
When I was in my early teens I made a washtub bass out of a washtub and a broom. I thought it was cool…and it worked. My parents, on the other hand, were less impressed and rather upset that I drilled a hole in the bottom of their washtub and cut the bristles off their broom. They still “remind me” about this incident now and again. In college, my friend taught me how to make an instrument out of a straw, later named a “strawboe” in my family. I loved it; Pizza Hut, on the other hand, did not. Still, these musical escapades were fun and educational. In fact, I still enjoy exploring unusual ways to make music…and I’ve learned to include my family in this fun adventure. You, too, can have a fun family night making instruments at home for your own little “band.” Think about it. You can make percussion instruments of various sizes and types ranging from garbage can drums to coffee can drums to cup drums. (How Wee Learn shares how to make these drums and 39 other creative instruments) You can also add maracas and didgeridoos (click here for instructions) to the mix. Add a few melodic instruments into the mix with the “strawboe” (click here for instructions), the tube bapgipe (click here for instructions), the water glass xylophone (click here for instructions), and, for the extra adventurous, the carrot clarinet (click here for instructions). You can find many more musical instrument ideas on the internet. Check them out. Make all the instruments you want. Serenade one another as a family. You might even march in your own parade to share your musical prowess with your neighbors. No matter how you share your musical adventures, remember to have fun with your family on this instrumental family fun night.