Co-written by Heather Malley and Susan North
Parenting Without Being a Dictator or a Doormat
Traditionally, there are 3 different frameworks for thinking about parenting styles. Most parents vacillate between the extremes of either authoritarian or permissive parenting moments. Neither one is beneficial to children. Thomas Gordon has so aptly characterized these extremes as being either a Dictator or a Doormat in his book Parent Effectiveness Training. The third path, which is beneficial to children, is traditionally called Authoritative, and is a lot like how the best bosses act. They are fair, kind, open to feedback, and they are also in charge.
This analogy is a great one to use as we think through what it means to be a parent who holds children’s needs as equal to theirs while understanding that expectations should be clear and consistent in order to best manage the needs and routines of the family. Openness/commitment to understanding our children’s needs and wants is distinctly different than allowing a child to “rule the roost”. Kids who have too much power in the household can find this anxiety-provoking and might act out because they crave a more predictable and secure environment. You may even notice that when you hold a limit a child protests it initially, then they show more affection towards you after you’ve held your ground. They often feel safer when they can depend on their loving adults being in charge.
Here are some tips and tricks:
1. Learn how to listen so that you can identify the difference between something your child wants from what they need.
2. Hone active listening skills to get to the heart of the matter. This isn’t about placating them, instead it is about listening to understand. It takes time and practice but is a magical relationship strengthener. If you are interested in learning more, we highly recommend Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training book as well as the workshop series.
3. Think before you say no. It’s okay to stall, as in “I want to think about that” or “I need to check with [other parent] first.” Know that if you are going to say a firm (and kind) no, this could bring on tears or worse. You need to steel yourself to validate the big feelings while staying the course. Consistent and reasonable limits or a predictable world feels safe and allows children to focus their energy on other things.
4. Train yourself to distinguish between negotiable matters and non-negotiables. This can be done by reflecting consciously about the struggle at hand. Is it a “have to” thing? If you believe that your child must brush teeth every night, there’s no point in having a 30-minute negotiation leading up to it.
5. Avoid negotiating on a topic that is developmentally over your child’s head. A clever, articulate preschooler can engage with you on topics they have little knowledge/perspective of (time, money, safety, nutrition, health…) A simple statement like, “It’s my job to see that you eat in a healthy way” can sometimes do the trick. Even if your child doesn’t buy that explanation, you will hear it. This might help you stay the course, you are the boss, kind and fair. You need to find your comfort zone in that role.
6. Tell with compassion, don’t ask. Sometimes when a parent starts out with “It’s time to leave the park, OK?” the child thought there was a choice and feels disappointed at the bait and switch when the parent inevitably switches into Dictator mode. When kids are confused, they often repeat a behavior to gain greater understanding. Like little scientists, they run an experiment over and over until things make sense.
7. Give your child(ren) lots of choices about inconsequential things, like which vegetable to put in the salad or which sweatshirt to wear. In terms of autonomy, it helps them feel “full” and maybe not so needful of asserting selfhood by opposing you elsewhere.
8. If your child remains upset about a decision you’ve made, avoid the temptation to over-explain. Be short on reasons and long on genuine empathy. Listen and show you care, give words for the emotions they are feeling. “You really wanted to stay at the park and it’s so disappointing that we have to go home now.” Typically, if children are upset, reasoning with them doesn’t help. Helping them hear that we care, however, does wonders.
Remember, you are the boss, a wise, equitable, loving, and consistent one.