"As a generation, we often have trouble navigating the boundary between being a friend to our kids and being their parents." (Dan Kindlon in Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age)
Parenting is the most important job on the planet—and, in equal measure, one of the most gratifying, demanding and confusing. There are as many different perspectives on the complexities of parenting as there are parents.
Jeff Opdyke’s piece from the Wall Street Journal entitled “Who’s the Boss? Sorry, Kids. It Isn’t You” gave me pause as a parent—and caused me to reach out to a short list of friends and colleagues and ask them to weigh in. These folks range in roles from mom to classroom teacher to school counselor to parent/teacher to school administrator.
In my quest to do a better job tomorrow in my role as a parent than I did today, I value thinking partnerships with others—and find these exchanges to be encouraging, thought-provoking and sometimes a little jarring.
I don’t claim that any single response offers a right answer. I do value the interplay of perspectives—and am reminded of my many blind spots as a parent and as an educator. Meaningful conversations over vital topics—such as how to remain clear on the roles of parent and child (and why that clarity is important)—are part of my “professional development” as a parent. And I offer these perspectives in a spirit of partnership with those who undertake each day the extraordinary work of parenting.
Below you’ll find what I take to be five key points from Opdyke’s article followed by the reflections of 7 friends and colleagues. I invite you to join this thinking partnership by posting your own thoughts.
Key Points from “Who’s the Boss? Sorry Kids. It Isn’t You”
 Because of the way we’ve raised our children, we have blurred the lines between the roles of parent and child.
 “Many kids these days see themselves as fully empowered members of the family, with opinions that carry just as much weight as their parents’ opinions do.”
 Moms and dads today often play the role of friend instead of parent.
 “Kids need to feel like they have a voice, and that voice is heard. Eventually, it will help them learn how to make smart decisions—and the consequences of making not-so-smart ones.”
 It isn’t good for kids to feel they are in complete control. “They don’t want all that power, even if they think they do. They want the security of somebody else making decisions. They need to know that parents make the rules.”
I think there are two issues at work here: 1) Some parents give their children choices to help them learn to make wise decisions and may go overboard, and 2) many parents today have less time to do the hard work of parenting, want to have happy children, and find it easier to give in to their children's demands rather than to make decisions their children won't like. All well meaning parents but the results are children who feel entitled. I believe that even the best parents make mistakes from time to time; it's the cumulative effect that counts in the long run.
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The first thing I thought of when I read this article was the parents who allow children to make the decision regarding school choice. In my book, that is a big decision and one best left up to the parents. (I think having input from students in grades five and up is appropriate.) Recently I talked to the Director of a local five-star child care program which serves ages 2-5. She said she even sees parents default to three-year-olds!
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Ha! That's funny, coming within 12 hours of going to Chick-Fil-A for dinner not because I as a parent particularly wanted to, but because my child did. :) (Guess that's me defaulting to a three-year-old!)
I think it all comes back to reflective listening and empathy: Kids want to feel heard. Letting them know you understand that they are disappointed, are sorry that they are feeling upset, but sticking to your guns over important decisions is critical. That said, it's great when parents can give kids a few viable options, all of which make everyone happy, to choose from (as Opdyke mentioned in the end of his article). A child who never makes decisions for himself will not be well prepared for life on his own.
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I like the underlying message in the article. Defining roles in the family. It reminds me of a quote I heard from Bill Cosby once upon a time. He heard one of his children say "we are rich." Bill clarified, "Your parents are rich, you are not."
I really think parents need guidance about boundaries, latitude and roles within the family. This article does speak to that. I think that as educators we can, too.
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One of my favorite words is--and has been for years--balance. I think there are some decisions that parents have to make and with which kids are expected to comply. We go to grandparents for major holidays, for example. We can afford to buy a certain item, but not others. I think it is great and appropriate for kids to weigh in on vacation possibilities, Friday night outs, and the like but they need to understand that it is a discussion and parents may still need to make the final decision. I think there are always things parents can let kids decide that give them some experience with decisions and I love the idea of discussions around possibilities. However, I believe that parents are parents--the ones with the experience and the pocketbook and those two givens may trump kids' wishes any time.
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It is true we have a concern among our current society with the over-indulged child; the child who “wears the pants” in the household. It is also true there is a middle ground between that of total control by a parent and total control by a child. Opdyke recognizes this need for balance as the he suggests wanting his children to share their opinions and think for themselves. We often make this statement as parents only to recant it as soon as the child makes a decision or shares an opinion out of line with our desired response.
Most parenting experts adhere to the belief that we need to allow appropriate choices for our children within established limits. The limit-setting begins early and the choices given are developmentally appropriate. As we give choices to our children we are thoughtful about the process in order to give legitimate choices which are equally acceptable to the parent and which avoid ulterior motives or manipulation. Teaching our children to think, make-decisions, and evaluate those decisions is an essential role of parenting.
The most difficult part of the process is being consistent and non-judgmental as our children make these choices. It is through the process of age-appropriate boundaries, choices, and modeling that we help our children grow and develop an understanding of their world and how their choices (and assumptions) affect not only themselves but those around them. While this parenting approach may not eliminate feelings of entitlement or the disappointment a child may have when things don’t go his way, it will fulfill the much desired sense of control and power each of us needs in our lives. Thus decreasing the number of power struggles that might ensue in a household where the child has been given an inappropriate amount of control and the parents are constantly fighting to get a bit of it back.
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It is important to set up clear guidelines and boundaries in a family so that children feel safe and cared for. Structure that is firm but not rigid allows a family to function well so that they as a group and as individuals can reach their potential. Without this structure everything is frustrating and difficult. Two authors that have helped me as I struggle with setting appropriate limits are John Rosemond, author of Parent Power and Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline, authors of Parenting with Love and Logic.
One thing to consider is that often as families we are somewhat self-absorbed, a common problem in the 21st century U.S. All of the situations described in the article relate to internal family issues. But maybe the "structure" provided by looking outward can be part of the answer. Children who are loved by others and able to think of THEIR needs are not bossy and out of control in annoying ways. Parents who are wondering how and when to set limits may find the following question useful, "How can I help my child become a pleasure to be with?"
Two of my favorite books on parenting (and the most dog-eared in my personal collection) are Dan Kindlon's Too Much of a Good Thing and Rob Evans' Family Matters. Each book is well worth its cover price--and the few hours required to read them are an investment in refining our role as parent.
Among other keen insights and practical gems, Kindlon offers the notion of TLC:
". . .the hold trinity of child care. Time--just being there for our kids, being around, being present, being available, spending time with our kids. Limits--being able to say no, incur our children's wrath, and push them to do things that are often difficult for them to do. And Caring--taking an active interest in our children's lives, being willing to listen to what's on their minds and participate in their activities, even if they're not inherently interesting to us."
Rob Evans frames out a balance of nurture, structure and latitude as key elements in what he terms authoritative parenting, which he contends, fosters "the growth of roots and wings" in our children by providing them with "love and acceptance, expectations and limits, support for autonomy and the freedom to learn from experience." In short, authoritative parenting leads to well-adapted children.
Nurture: unconditional positive regard, basic warmth, an essential confidence and basic belief that one is "lovable and can expect relationships to be governed by reciprocity," the seedbed of trusting and socially responsible personal relationships and civic virtues."
Structure: a framework for conduct, expectations for behavior, clear norms for how one should behave, treat others and achieve.
Latitude: support for a child's autonomy while allowing the child freedom to fail and struggle against difficulties