“ Your Child is Not Your Equal: Why You Have to Be the Boss”
By James Lehman, MSW
As a parent, if you aren’t the boss in your family, the lines of authority can become blurred very quickly. When your children are unsure about who’s really in charge, they often act out, engage in risky behavior, or become extremely bossy and patronizing as a result. And eventually, you start to resent them because you don’t have a way to tell them what to do. You’ve effectively lost control.
Many parents also want to be their child’s friend—they don’t like the idea of being the boss at all. The major problem with this approach is that a friend is non-judgmental, and a friend is a peer. In my opinion, your child’s role simply isn’t equal to yours—as a parent, you have to make judgments and be in charge because otherwise, no one will be in charge.
What It Means to Be the Boss of Your Child
I want to be clear about what I mean by the boss. I often define this as the limit-setter role when I’m talking to parents. I firmly believe parents need to set limits on their kids and maintain the rules of their household using consequences and accountability.
While the limit-setter role is essential, keep in mind that it should not be the only one you use. The other critical roles I’ve identified are the teacher role, where you help your child learn how to behave more appropriately, and the coach role, where you challenge your child to behave better—much like the coach of a sports team would do. All three roles—limit-setter, teacher, and coach—are needed for you to be a highly effective parent, particularly with adolescents.
You Were in Charge When Your Child Was Young—So What Happened?
I think when children are very young, it’s easy to see that the parents are in charge—parents make the decisions, direct their children in their day-to-day activities, and organize things for their household. They also supervise their children’s behavior and decide what’s appropriate and what’s not.
And you’ll often see children from the age of about six to ten being compliant most of the time. During those years, parents tend to develop a friendly relationship with their kids and, unless your kids have significant behavior problems, they listen to you, do what you ask, and want to spend time with you.
But when adolescence hits, the whole game changes. What often emerges is not only a lack of respect for parental authority but also a situation where your child wants to be the boss.
When this happens, many parents have a hard time reasserting their role as the person in charge. And if you’ve never clearly established yourself as being in control, it may seem as though it’s almost impossible for you to do it after your child becomes a teenager.
It’s Normal for Teens to Resist Their Parents
Why is it so difficult to assert control over your adolescent? One reason is that the developmental stage we call adolescence is a time for your child to individuate—that is, to create an identity separate from you. And the way children do this is by pushing adults away. In the adolescent years, they lean more toward their peers, and they think their friends are the only ones who understand them. Indeed, they don’t like being around adults much—and they certainly don’t like being around the adults who are telling them what to do.
Kids who are generally well-behaved will say to you they resent your authority in mostly appropriate or semi-appropriate ways. Their protests might range from saying, “Stop telling me what to do all the time!” to eye-rolling and loud sighs each time you make a request. These protests are incredibly annoying at times, and they test our patience as parents, but they’re generally harmless and to be expected from an adolescent.
But other kids will tell you they’re upset in wholly inappropriate ways. They act out and become verbally abusive, destructive, or aggressive.
Four Areas Where Parents Need to Have the Ultimate Decision
Many parents encourage their kids to participate in family decisions, and I think that’s a good thing to do. Don’t forget, when you’re raising your child, one of the things you want them to learn is how to be independent. The more independent kids are, the better chances they’ll have of making choices that increase the likelihood of success in life.
So the way you develop independence in your children is by letting them make choices and encouraging their participation. As a result, it’s natural for kids to start thinking they have a say in everything unless you are clear about the choices you’re giving them.
Therefore, you need to be clear about which choices reside with you, the parent, and which choices your child can make. You can further explain that you may still want your child’s input on the choices that reside with you, but don’t expect him to like that arrangement. And that’s okay because being a good boss sometimes means making unpopular decisions.
In my opinion, parents have to have the final say in these four areas:
- Health issues
- Preparation for adulthood
You can say to your child:
“Listen, these are the areas where I’m in charge—it’s not a subject of debate. We can talk about things, but I have the final say-so, and that’s the way it has to be. That’s my role. I’m the parent.”
This means that you decide whether or not your daughter can go out until midnight. You decide whether or not your son is doing enough homework, if his grades are acceptable, and what chores he has to do. You make the decisions about what’s healthy and not healthy for all your kids. You make these decisions because you’re in charge of taking care of your family to the best of your ability. You make these decisions because you are the boss and that is your job.
Soft Choices Versus Hard Choices
By the way, I think it’s perfectly okay for kids to have a say about things that aren’t going to affect their safety, health, performance, or preparation for adulthood. You can conceptualize these issues as soft choices versus the hard choices that are reserved for you.
Soft choices might include what clothes they wear, which movie you watch as a family, how long their hair is, or what color nail polish your teen daughter chooses. Encourage your child to make those soft decisions—and then honor them. In other words, let your child wear what he picked out, as long as it’s appropriate.
It’s admittedly difficult for parents to walk the fine line between being the boss and giving your child enough independence. There’s a natural tension, and that’s why so much fighting goes on during this time. I think if you ask yourself, “Is this a soft choice or a hard choice?” then you’ll have a clearer understanding of how to proceed.