Parental Authority: Do You Have It?

 Talk So Your Kids Will Listen

“I listen to my father because I have found that he tells me things that turn out to be true,” said Allison (18 year old high school senior) as I drove her home from the basketball game the Wednesday after the Saturday night party where some of her classmates got into trouble, getting drunk and trashing the house of a classmate. “Like ‘Never go out without money,’ he says.”

I felt like saying: “That’s interesting. Your parents think you never listen. It drives them crazy that you get mad at them every time they try to tell you something, and that you insist on doing it your own way. Yesterday, your mother even said to me with a sigh ‘It’s as if she is bound and determined to make mistakes.’” But I just listened.

(Doesn’t she know her parents and I are friends? Ah, yes. She does, doesn’t she. Hmmmmm.)

She continued: “I wish I could talk to the parents of my friends and tell them how to talk to their kids. I wish they would tell them things like ‘Never go out without money.’ There we are at Starbucks and they’re all, ‘Allison, can you pay for this? I didn’t bring any money,’ and I go, ‘Sure.’ But it get’s annoying. They do pay me back, but it’s annoying. Parents ought to be careful what they tell their kids, so that when they give them advice, the kids will listen. What those kids did to that house was gross.”

“But you don’t always do what your father tells you, do you?” I asked.

“No, but when he talks, I do listen. Sure, it makes me mad when he tells me to get off Facebook and start doing my homework, but I know he is telling me the right thing. That’s the point. I know it is the right thing for him to tell me. It makes him mad when I don’t do it right away, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be between parents and their teenagers. I know he’s right. I just have to do it myself.

Pause. I don’t even say, “Uh, huh.” I just keep driving.

“The point is my Dad is like an authority. When he speaks I listen.”

Take away?

1)    A parent needs to be an authority.

2)    The measure of your authority is: when you speak, they listen.

3)    By the time the child is a teenager it is not about obedience anymore.

4)    To be an authority, give them reliable messages.

5)    You won’t know you were successful until they come to you for advice when they are older or when the chips are down, and their peers’ advice proves unreliable.

What is your strategy for being an authority for your children?

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18 thoughts on “Parental Authority: Do You Have It?

  1. My strategy for being an authority for my children is simple: start young and be there for them, consistently.

    I’m lucky in that I was already a (minor) authority in life and business, I started parenting in middle age and have three children so I am able to learn off one and apply it to the others.

    Mother and I communicated with each child in the womb, I was there at birth, I held them within minutes as I, with good eye contact, quietly introduced myself, welcomed them, and soothed them with affirmations of love and support. Soon after, and then often, they were asleep on my chest, flesh to flesh. It turned out that I was able to calm each child and get them to sleep on the occasions that their mother could not.

    Leadership and Followship (sic) is the leading factor in child – and all other – parenting and development. By my shows of positive leadership, my children have clear paths to follow and clear leadership models as they move from dependence to independence and inter-dependence. So much so that I am confident that I am already parenting my grandchildren!

    The concept of “Being There” is vitally important and routinely understated; it’s another Peter-ism and is worthy of its own chapter (but I won’t go there now, don’t want to hog Rick’s blog!).

    Parent Peter

  2. Thanks for the great column and reminders, Rick. All parenting of teen advice most welcome.

  3. I’ve been thinking about how to parent a teenager since I was one. Now that I have a “three-n-ager” I’m getting glimpses of how much harder that will be in reality. I’ve already gotten trapped in a negative cycle once with my child. The good thing is that I recognised we weren’t getting anywhere and reversed it for the most part.

    With teenagers the stakes are much much higher. Car accidents, drug addiction, abusive relationships, date rape, violent rape… these are the kinds of things that become very real threats. They are also places I think my parents did very well by me and it was because I could talk to them and because I could believe them.

    They were approachable to talk about everything from day one. Any question was okay to ask and wouldn’t be judged. That meant that when I got to the more awkward pre-teen years I could actually talk with them about sex, stds, drugs, and relationships. Even though she’s only three my kid has known how babies are made since she was two and she can ask questions about that. Sometimes a thorny issue comes up and she asks a hard question and I discuss it with her with respect due her personhood.

    It’s those talks that happen in the pre-teens BEFORE they have them with their friends that give them a good foundation on difficult issues. I intend to point out crack addicts on the street to my daughter. I will explain how the cycle of addiction happens, how it can slide very gradually, or just with addiction on the first hit (which sometimes happens with crack). How certain drugs may not be so harmful in themselves (tell them all drugs are evil and you will lose credibility when their friends give them research studies on mushrooms for example), but how being casual about them and letting one lead to another can and will destroy your life and who you are. I’d go through drugs one by one (including alcohol) and explain what each one does, side effects, damage, positive things (if you leave those out they won’t trust you), and what can happen in different situations (like drinking beer at a frat party if you are a cute girl). What makes things more unsafe and how one thing can lead to another. If you say “drugs are terrible they will ruin your life” they will eventually try a little pot or something and then go “my mom lied! This is fine! People do this for years and are totally fine!” Better to really explain.

    Ditto with smoking. If I can possibly show her what lung cancer looks like in person I will. A friend of mine is currently dying of it but she may be too young to remember. I’ll make sure she sees it in a way she can understand. Part of that has to do with explaining probability in a way she can understand- something humans are just not good at. Playing some kind of game of chance might be a good start.

    Bottom line is that you will be believable if you are honest and detailed, and they will hear you to believe you if you build the rapport from day one.

  4. Susi, the best teen parenting advice I know is this, “Don’t try to fight all the battles” and thusly, “Choose your (battle) ground.”

    When you have child in your face, or you are simply not up to it, it’s fine to put out the flare-up with a “Joie, we both need to be calm and relaxed to discuss this; later, okay?” Or “Patti, if you insist on answer right now it’s an emphatic ‘no’ but, if it can wait until a better time, the answer might be different, okay?”

    Then, later on, make the time and opportunity where you can both Be There Comfortably and discuss the matter calmly and rationally.

    Corey, I love your “three-n-ager” at first reading and your strategies for her future! Rick with Allison and you with your daughter both, as any parent does, rely on you and the child both Being There Comfortably in order to make progress.

    You are laying the foundations today for when your toddler and her siblings start building their own oft-rickety edifice that is teenage-ism. You are certainly thinking things through; I love your integrity and attention to details, details which are conveyed with subtleties that so Respect The Child!

    Happy parenting, all!

  5. Seems to me (as the mother of 3 teen-aged girls) that the biggest challenge for parents (not to mention teachers and school administrators) is to recognize the difference between acting with authority and pulling rank. Pulling rank is the act of demanding obedience, frequently disguised as “respect,” by virtue of status or position. Acting with authority is behaving with integrity, compassion and generosity with the objective of maximizing the authority, learning and self-direction of the other person. A person pulling rank is very unlikely to be able to change his or her position as a result of interaction with the “subordinate” since anything other than unquestioning compliance is perceived as a threat to his or her “authority.” A person acting with true authority on the other hand can be open to engaging the child (or co-worker) in a shared task of making the best possible decision, which just might mean being amenable to an outcome that is different from what one initially had in mind.

  6. Pulling rank can be, so often is, a trap; it’s a trap that is sure to undermine part two of the formula for handling, the calm execution of ones authority to problem solve.

    Pulling rank, giving an order, so as to insert control into an immediate situation – I call it putting out the fire – is a necessary part of all facets of life. With the flare-up doused, one can get on with the task at hand and, later, authority can come back and dampen any embers and handle the real source of the fire.

    Pulling rank becomes a trap when the authority gets stuck in it and hasn’t time or is ignorant of or careless about part two. A parent, especially one of three teenagers, is particularly prone to such entrapment because it is so so easy for one child’s flare-up to spread to the others, to leap across the gap and ignite you too! … Oh, such angst! … and the timing is likely awful too; you’re late driving your girls home in the rain, traffic is snarled up and dinner is but a hazy plan!

    If one can step back at that moment and recognize that the instigating child’s upset is likely an innocent mistaken approach made with mistaken timing, then you avoid getting trapped; you can take a deep breath and snarl something like, “Girls, not NOW; I must concentrate on driving!”

    One, hopefully both, parents are the number one authority in a child’s life. As such they should demonstrate the calibre of leadership they want the child to respect and follow in day care, school, Saturday nights out, college and throughout life.

    In the words of B.J. Palmer, “Get the Big Idea. All else follows.”

    Warmest best wishes, Tracy and all parents!
    Parent Peter

  7. Peter, this is a fabulous quotable quote:
    Parents and teachers “should demonstrate the calibre of leadership they want the child to respect and follow in day care, school, Saturday nights out, college and throughout life.” –especially in how they relate to their kids. Thank you, for following up on the “pulling rank” concept.

  8. A person’s authority should stand on its own two feet and not need extra umph from position. Tune in next week when I write about Max and the kind of quiet authority he exercised even as a 10-year-old.

  9. A post script to pulling rank; it gets to be a problem when the authority does it in self-interest. I said above that it’s okay to pull rank in a given situation for the best interests of all, with the hope that there’ll be the opportunity for a part two handling with the key players later.

    I must disagree with Rick about an authority not needing extra umph from position; often in life an authority needs all possible extras to bolster their position. Here’s why:

    Communication is key to the application of authority and all face-to-face communication has three elements; words, tone of voice and non-verbal behaviour or body language (google “The 7%-38%-55% Rule” by Albert Mehrabian, circa 1967).

    Which is why, for example, uniforms are so common in our society; police officers, airplane crew, engine drivers, nurses, etcetera all appear distinctive primarily to communicate their authority at first glance.

    Rick, you and I, with our deep male voices, are often more effective at conveying authority than the typically higher shrill female voice. We’re older too, so perhaps have more experience with choices of words to use.

    Heck, only this week we saw an inspiring story and video in which a passer-by in New York used his POSITION, and a lot else, to catch a 6-year old child falling from a 3rd storey air-conditioner

    (With the “10%-30%-60% Rule”, as I’ve heard it referred to in a movie, don’t get hung up on the percentages; I find the rule works well by thinking of personal communication as “A few words, lots of tone-of-voice and mostly body-language.”)

    Tracy, is some of what we’re saying here any help? …


  10. Listening, really listening, trying to understand, yet maintaining the role of an parent. After my son’s father died he said, I am the man of the house now. Tragic. But no way little man (I didn’t use little man). I am the parent and you are my child. Just out of curiosity, have parents or teachers of gifted found that their kids, students are much more responsive
    to conversation and explanation rather than grounded two weeks. I can remover Nate coming home when he was in elementary school saying, Mom, I am in trouble…this
    Is what I did. Now what is an appropriate
    punishment. Oh good grief. Wish linked in, twitter and Facebook were available at
    that time.

  11. From Lyn:
    Interesting – I remember asking my youngest when she was in high school if she wanted me to tell her friends they could only talk to her on the phone between 7-9PM. She answered, “no, Mom, I can do it myself.” And she figured it out somehow, and she got great grades somehow… Maybe it’s the “power of suggestion” that gets an adolescent to take care of it him/herself.

  12. More on pulling rank: I didn’t mean to imply that there is no room in the appropriate exercise of authority for the occasional “I’m-the-mom-that’s why” decision. I also agree that there are times when position alone can and should compel obedience (when the police put up a barricade or a judge bangs the gavel) or respect (why it’s not ok to shout out “you lie” during a State of the Union Address regardless of whether there is hard evidence that the President is distorting the facts). However, I do think that the dynamic is different where the end-game is the raising or educating of a human being. There is always a sub-text to pulling rank of “I am more; you are less.” It’s the demanding of respect without the concomitant obligation to be respectful. Here’s an example: a child and an adult are at odds over an event in the past. The adult has one recollection and the child another. If the child is correct, then arguably she had reason to believe that she was permitted to do something that the adult claims broke a school rule. It’s a classic he said, she said. But the upshot is that the adult asserts her recollection as truth and brands the child’s recollection as a lie. When the child refuses to admit that she is not telling the truth and insists that her recollection is accurate, the exchange ends with the adult, who is a school administrator in this example, but could just as easily be a parent, ordering the child to serve a week of detention for lying. Did this adult enhance or diminish her authority?

  13. Thanks, Tracy. That could be a great example we all can face when we are arguing to be right rather than responsible. We were raised with the idea (well, I was) that a memory of an event is like a stored video – when we recall it, it plays just like the original. But the latest studies say that memory is more active, and that each time we recall an event, we re-run the circuits again, making modifications that make it fit our current narrative (truth) about the situation, including adding new data from others, etc., and then “save” it over the original (like, “file already exists. Do you want to save over it?” and the answer is always “yes.” (Or perhaps, “save as .” All that is to say sometimes “pulling rank” is just this phenomenon, and not necessarily always.

  14. … and yes, I agree – the powers-that-be (adults/administrators) will usually win out in an argument, by the way.

    And to answer your question, I’d say the adult diminished her authority in the eyes of others, especially the students, and may have enhanced it in her own view and perhaps in the view of others in authority in the school. That is a great question to ask everyone.

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