During my 34 years in elementary education, I had the opportunity to observe many children and their parents. One of the most perplexing observations made was the frequency with which I would hear parents of young children make such statements as, “I can’t get my son/daughter to do homework” or “If my child is tired at school, it’s probably because he/she refuses to go to bed at night” or “Kids today just don’t mind.” Perplexing because the implication was/is that parents are totally helpless when it comes to their children's behavior. The fact of the matter is: Children do not create helpless parents. Parents create their own helplessness; and when parents are helpless, children take control.
Failure to understand that actively raising a child begins the day the child is born has resulted in more than a few parents suddenly realizing, about the time their child is in middle school, that they need to get serious about parenting; only to be shocked at the push-back they receive. The answer to said disrespectful, defiant, child is to try and demand obedience by “lowering the boom” with as much of an authoritative tone as one can muster. The so-called authoritative tone is often demonstrated by yelling at the child to inform him/her of what will and will not be tolerated and consequences for non-compliance. In the heat of the moment, consequences spewed by the parent may be impractical or unreasonable (i.e. no leaving the house for 6 months, no TV for a year….). When that occurs, parents often end up either not following through, following through for a short period of time, apologizing to the child for being too harsh and/or extending a peace offering of sorts. This “parenting on the fly” involves spontaneously reacting to each situation as it arises and is not conducive to achieving sustainable change.
Parents need to let go of any notion that they can successfully parent by yelling, befriending or bargaining. None of these tactics reflects leadership. Instead, make character development the major focus of your parenting. Character encompasses attributes such as respect, kindness, honesty, sympathy, empathy, resilience, and perseverance. Consistently modeling the type of behavior that you expect to see in your child is POWERFUL. Your child may not always be listening, but he or she is watching. Expose your child to other positive role models who exhibit strong character. Provide opportunities for your child to engage in character building activities (scouts, youth groups, recreational sports, service clubs). This approach can lead to positive behavior changes that will transfer to other areas of your child’s life.
Ultimately, children need to know that the adults charged with their care will love them unconditionally and can be trusted to look out for their wellbeing. Unconditional love and authoritative leadership go hand in hand and are accomplished through meaningful words and consistent actions; a combination that commands respect, not demands it. The former is sustainable, the latter is not.
Final thoughts – The Power of Alpha Speech
As a school principal, when a student was sent to my office for a behavior issue, included in my dialog with the student was the following statement made in a straightforward, calm, direct, authoritative manner (Alpha Speech):
“Look me straight in the eye because what I am getting ready to say is very important. You are in my office today for (specific misbehavior); behavior that is not helpful to you or anyone else and is totally unacceptable. I come to school every day with a mission to look out for every single student in this building and that includes YOU. I am an adult – you are not. As the adult, it is MY job to look out for you, protect you, love you and discipline you when you need it, AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT I INTEND TO DO.”
Notwithstanding the level of the offense, I cannot count the number of students whose shoulders dropped, and facial expression softened, after hearing those words. Their body language said it all, “At last, an adult is stepping up and taking charge.” And so often, in their eyes, I saw, “THANK YOU.”
©November 2020, Sharon Knapp Lamberth