Anna started having trouble being a mother almost the day her son Josh turned two. Two days before his birthday, he started using the word, “No.” At first she just laughed—thinking it was cute, but soon she took it as a serious challenge. After a month or so, she began to be shocked at Josh’s disrespect and to be frustrated in her efforts “to get him to do what he was supposed to do, and to stop doing things he was not supposed to do.”
One day she showed me a list of behaviors-and-punishments she had made and asked me for advice.
I told her that one sure-fire way to increase this disrespectful behavior would be to institute a system of rewards and punishments. Such an approach seems logical enough given that most societies do exactly that. They establish laws and punishments. But a child is not a society in need of law and order, but a person in need of a relationship with a person who is an authority. A discipline system is a bad idea for most children. By setting up a system she would be:
1) turning the parent-child relationship into a cops and robbers game,
2) establishing a game she would rather not play, and one the child will probably win,
3) institutionalizing adult authority as something to be gotten round rather than something valued as a source of knowledge about how the world works,
4) undermining her own personal authority.
When adults focus on “discipline techniques,” they communicate uncertainty about their authority and get themselves in trouble.
Children want to know that adults are authorities. They are counting on adult authority to help them negotiate the complex world—especially the infinitely complex challenge of harmonizing their needs, values and interests with those of others. By the age of two they have been about this business for more than 17,000 hours and know in their bones that relationships aren’t simple. Any pretense of simplicity will make them suspicious, and their curiosity will require them test the system. This is why authenticity is a better ball to keep our eye on than “consistency.”
A child’s reality-testing-mechanism is looking for an adult whose authority they can trust, and their instincts tell them that authenticity is trustworthy. A simple, authentic, kind, empathetic, rigid “No,” when no is called for, is what they want (though their behavior might not communicate that.)
- uncertainty about boundaries,
- afraid to say “no,”
- saying “no” and then backing down,
- not respecting the children’s development of their own authority,
- getting mad,
- using manipulative techniques,
- second-guessing ourselves,
- being confused about the whole idea of authority,
- hating the word,
- feeling the need to be perfect and not admitting being wrong,
- feeling the need to justify or explain our decision. (Justification is read as uncertainty.)
The story of how my three year old niece challenged my authority many years ago, and how I handled it, (“In Search of Authority”) generated 21 comments. Some useful advice from the comment section includes:
- Use words to define and acknowledge behavior.
- Take a step back before reacting as a reminder to keep your ego out of it.
- Confront unacceptable behavior, AND ally with the child.
- Use laughter—it naturally communicates that your authority is not threatened.
- Say something empathetic as you continue to insist on exercising your authority.
- Don’t take it personally.
- Say: “Use your words,” and don’t reward bad behavior by reacting.
- Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
- Communicate that we are on their team, and that my love and respect is unconditional.
Anyone who has responsibility for the care of children necessarily has authority by virtue of position—the responsibility they have legally taken on. How to exercise that authority is the challenge. Those who cannot separate the idea of authority from the idea of force, those who have had little experience exercising their own personal authority, those who think they have to be right to be boss, and those you think “We can’t be friends if I am an authority” will run into trouble.
All of us of all ages are faced with the ongoing challenge of creating a self in the tension between our own authority and the authority of others. All educators are always in search of the knack of exercising our authority in a way that can increase the authority of others.
Authority isn’t about power it is about trustworthiness. “Discipline” issues aren’t about discipline; they are about authority.