Many parents and teachers think that encouraging responsibility in children and exercising adult authority are antithetical.
Thirteen-year-old Ashley sat at the head of the table with her six-year-old brother Jack to her right and her ten-year-old sister Ellen to her left. Their father, Matt, sat at the other end next to the children’s grandmother. As soon as Jack’s food arrived, Ashley took a French fry off his plate. Jack complained, but Ashley didn’t stop. He tried to protect his food with his body, but Ashley continued stealing fries.
“Stop taking Jack’s fries, please,” her father said at one point.
Ashley ate a couple of bites of her own salad, and then took a cherry tomato from Ellen’s plate. Ellen shrieked, but Ashley gave her a superior, arrogant look and immediately took another one. Matt said nothing.
When Ashley took another tomato, her grandmother said, “Stop it,” at which point Ashley got up from the table, took her cell phone to the ladies room, and didn’t come back until dinner was over.
This classic case of failure of adult authority seems to be not uncommon. Matt told me once that he just wants his children to be happy. “I don’t want to be an ogre. I want them to grow up to be leaders, and I don’t want to undermine their confidence by constant correcting. Too much control will crush her spirit.”
The common idea that being an authority to children requires controlling them is the culprit. Education is a paradoxical business. In a great school adult control is low because internal motivation and self-discipline are high. Student authority is more apparent than adult authority.
At the same time, children need to know that those in authority are not afraid to exercise it. They need adults to model what having authority looks like. A family where an adult has abdicated his authority produces a scary environment encouraging tyrants and bullies.
The idea that authority and freedom are antithetical can be pre-empted by focusing on the genius in every child. Acting as if children actually want to be responsible decision makers increases the incidence of responsible decision making among children.
Parenting expert Vicki Hoefle makes this clear in her book Duct Tape Parenting. (Bibliomotion 2012).
At the end of the book is a chapter of short memoirs by her five children. Her 23-year-old daughter writes: “Maybe the most important thing my parents ever taught me was to have confidence in myself and to trust myself in every aspect of my life. But you don’t build confidence and learn to trust yourself unless a parent has confidence and trust in you first.
“I can remember my school morning routine as if it were yesterday. As a five-year-old kindergartner, living in Edmonds, Washington, I would get up to my alarm clock at six in the morning everyday. My first stop was to my parents’ room to say good morning and give them kisses. Then, I would head to the kitchen and make myself a bowl of cereal (which I had set out the night before.) I would eat, pack my lunch, and brush my teeth and get dressed. How is it that a five-year-old can do so much on her own? It’s not so hard with practice and support from parents who are confident that, with a bit of training and encouragement any five-year-old can handle a morning routine.”
The increasing dependence and irresponsibility of young people is much talked about these days. Many people are asking me to write about discipline and to tell parents how to control their kids. If there is, indeed, an epidemic of irresponsible young people, my experience with children—my own and thousands of others—has taught me that there are two places to look for causes:
1) Adult failure to see children as they really are, whole people who want to be responsible members of their community as soon as they possibly can, and
2) Adult fear that exercising adult authority is the same as exercising adult control.
Raising responsible young people requires:
(A) Increasing the number of decisions that children are responsible for, and
(B) Increasing accurate feedback about what is socially acceptable and what is not.