It’s 5:15 pm. Mom is at the stove making dinner. Her six-year-old Brittany sees a bag of candy canes that her mother just brought home for Christmas decorations, and says, “Mommy, can I have a candy cane?”
“It’s close to dinnertime. Can you wait?”
“No. I’m hungry,” says Brittany with a bit of a whine in her voice.
“We’ll be eating soon. I don’t want you to spoil your dinner.”
“But, I’m hungry. I can’t wait,” Brittany complains.
Long pause. “Okay, but just one,” with a resigned tone of voice that communicates “I don’t really think it’s a good idea, but if that is what you want, then okay, you win.”
This kind of back-and-forth between parent and child can often last quite a bit longer, and is rather common in American households. Boundaries in American families are often rather vague and poorly defended with results ranging from authority battles at home, to misbehavior in public, to discipline problems at school—even to sloppy parent-teacher conferences.
Americans are all over the map on authority. From authoritarians to anti-authoritarians and everything in between, we have among us many notions of authority, mostly negative. So, we tend to avoid the word.
But we need the word. Children need us to be authorities. They are counting on us to be authorities on nutrition, our own personal boundaries, how we treat one another, and thousands of other bits of knowledge about how the world works. Moreover, we want children to become authorities—that’s why we send them to school. We want them to be authors, authors of books, articles, poems, works of art, new inventions, new companies, better ways of doing things. We need them to be authors of peace and friendship.
Authority is a good word. Teachers are charged with making sure that their students leave them more authoritative than they were before. All good teachers want their students to be writers regardless of subject, because getting their children to write about what they are learning is a very helpful way to solidify the thoughts and understandings that will make them authorities. Speaking in front of a group is a critical activity if children are to become the strong social animals they need to be for optimal functioning in the world—right up there with reading, writing and ciphering.
That these obvious statements are so often in the shadows of our minds rather than the forefront is partial proof of my thesis that we are authority-avoidant even though authority-avoidance is about as functional as conflict-avoidance.
Vicky is at the keyboard trying to concentrate on her writing. Beatty, her 6-year old, comes into the room talking. “Mommy, …” he says, and the contents of his mind come pouring out.
Vicky stops typing, turns to him, listens and answers his questions even though she is feeling a lot of deadline pressure.
For her own sake as well as for the child’s, a much better move would be to say in a matter-of-fact voice, “Please don’t walk into a room talking.” Or perhaps, “Wait, please. I need to finish my thought.”
At the crux of the matter is the reality that any two people working on their own individual authority are different; so their authorities may clash. How will my authority run afoul of some other person’s authority? What if we disagree? Who will win? Who will show me up as less than the authority I think I am?
One of the disciplines required for handling clashes of authority is defining and defending boundaries. Being clear about what you think, feel, want, need and value is actually a gift rather than an imposition. People need to know where they stand with us in order to build a relationship. Kids in particular appreciate it (even if they sometimes sound like they don’t.)
To maximize education a school or home must organize itself so that each person’s authority enhances other people’s authority. Defining ourselves clearly and lovingly to children is a critical discipline that takes a lot of practice—in fact, it is a lifelong challenge, but it is at the core of build authority in children.
Brittany’s and Beatty’s mothers are doing more than being wishy-washy about boundaries. They are missing opportunities to challenge their children to become more, flexible, resilient, adaptable and creative. Frustrating a child’s impulse is essential for his success in all endeavors from social problems to math problems.