Staying in Charge While You Honor Your Children’s Identities

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Are parents really in charge of their families today? Most parents would say, “Of course we are!” The more honest answer is, “Probably not.” Popular media, peer culture and our very own beloved children themselves often run our families today. Don’t get me wrong. We parents really do love our children. It’s just that we don’t know how to be in charge. Even if we did, the enormous cultural forces often overwhelm us and threaten the integrity and sacredness of our role. You know the routine. Your kids might say: “I don’t see why I can’t text at the dinner table.” “What’s wrong with my playing Death Warriors at 2am on a school night?” “How can you expect me to have kids over at our house if we don’t have an X-box?” “Mom and Dad, I need a whole new set of hockey equipment and lessons in a summer camp if you expect me to stay competitive.” Wow! Many of us never grew up with such dilemmas and we’re lost in trying to respond to them.

It’s way overdue for parents to take charge of their families.The expectations parents place on themselves these days are so high — partly due to their absence from the family as a result of overworking — that they simply get plagued by guilt and just give in to their kids. Adults don’t even assume they have the right to say, “Hey wait a minute here. We can’t really afford your going into hockey camp this summer. Besides I don’t know I can drive you all over the state next year to all your tournaments. Maybe it’s not even healthy for you to be so wrapped up in organized team sports in grade school.” Yes parents really have it tough these days. In the name of love they become slaves of their own guilt, they give up common sense and discernment, they raise kids that don’t respect them or anybody else and they do their kids no favors by trying to be their friend and self-esteem builder. It’s way overdue for parents to take charge of their families.

What does it mean to take charge of your family?

Being in charge of your family doesn’t mean you have to be a bully. Nor does it mean that you’re a wet noodle. It’s somewhere in between. Being in charge means that you and your kids have a relationship built on respect. Your kids need to respect you as an authority figure in their life, they need to learn to respect others and ultimately they need to learn to respect themselves. Whether your kids like you or not at any given moment is no where near as important as whether they learn to honor you and themselves. Respect is built on having a personal relationship with your children that is permissive with their feelings and firm with their behaviors. Knowing and caring about the details of their lives while expecting them to be responsible for their own behavior is way more important than laying down the law or trying to be your children’s buddy.

Research tells us that authoritarian and permissive styles of parenting significantly cripple children because it makes them overly dependent on others for approval and robs them of a sense of self. They have lifelong mood disorders, misuse alcohol and drugs, and have higher rates of suicide. On the other hand, an authoritative style of raising children that blends discipline with empathic warmth totally does the trick with kids. It builds a strong identity in children.

If you’re at sea with how you raise your kids, realize you’re in good company. Most of us follow unconscious patterns from our family of origin in raising our kids, we do the best we can and we have great difficulties in running the show with kindness.

Why is running the show with kindness so important?

Imagine this. You’re in the captain’s seat of a jumbo jet plane ready for take off. How do you feel? Momentarily thrilled by the power of the moment as you gaze at the dazzling array of dials and gizmos in front of you. You’re primed to take the ride of your life. Then reality sets in. You feel terror and panic. After all, what are you doing in the captain’s seat? You don’t know how to handle what’s in front of you. You’ll likely crave for somebody to take over to avoid sheer disaster. You’ll plead for help. That’s exactly what it’s like for kids when parents aren’t in charge. They’re in over their heads.

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Correspondingly, when parents are in charge, that’s like having the real captain take over the helm so that kids can breathe a sigh of relief and get to where they’re going. When parents are in charge, children learn that their feelings will not destroy them, that there are limits to their behaviors and that they have the capacity to express warmth towards others. Kindness and discipline get united in kids. That’s what makes them have authentic character. They will soar through life. They will be able to read all the dials. But not before their time.

Signals of parents not being in charge

Look no further. Believe me, your children will zealously give you plenty of signals of when you’re not in charge of the family. They so desperately need for you to run the show with kindness. However don’t expect any awards from them for taking over in the cockpit. After all, that’s your job. Warning signals include:

  • Your kids are regularly snotty and indifferent to the needs of others
  • They feel entitled to dictate their needs to you regarding meals and meal preparation, toy purchases, school and club activities, clothes and electronic gear
  • Your children have no sense of obligation to their family or others
  • You hardly ever focus on your own needs and limitations in making family decisions
  • You appease your children to get short-term compliance
  • You don’t expect your children to do chores or don’t punish them when they don’t
  • You and your children get into loud shouting matches over inane family issues
  • You are constantly on the prowl to catch your children in a lie
  • You get obsessed with the safety and achievement of your kids
  • You do for your children what they need to do for themselves
  • You use the children to fight with your spouse or make up for his or her inadequacies
  • You can’t tolerate your children’s disapproval
  • You would never miss your children’s extracurricular activity
  • You assume complete responsibility for your children’s college expenses
  • Your kids are an extension of yourself

What gets in the way of running the show?

Culture, parental training, and emotional deprivation all contribute to kids running the show. Living in a materialistic, media-driven, every-man-for-himself society causes parents to feel insecure and inadequate even when they themselves have all the goods to be great parents already. They get duped into feeling inadequate (partly to buy more products). Consequently they compete with other parents, overemphasize achievement in their children and micromanage their children’s lives. They claim they’re doing so for the sake of their children; the reality is quite the opposite. They enlist their children in their own personal insecurity battles. They fail to realize their main job is not get their kids into Harvard but to rear kids who have good character and feel good enough no matter what they achieve. With good character and compassion their kids will achieve what they are capable of; without good character and compassion nothing they achieve will really matter.

Some parents have psychological roadblocks that undermine their competency as family leaders. They have grown up in families where their parents did everything for them or else deprived them of basic safety and nurturing due to family dysfunction. We learn by imitating. We teach what we are taught. Many of us may promise ourselves we won’t do what our parents did to us but in the long run we wind up repeating what our folks did. As Sheldon Kopp, a famous psychoanalyst, once said, “We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Indeed many of us child rearers can learn new tricks in running our families. However, left to our own devices, we repeat old patterns.

If we give them everything they ever want, how will they ever learn to consider the needs of others?Many parents today are too isolated from one another and therefore emotionally deprived. We’re terrified to show our dirty laundry to others. We mistakenly believe we should already know how to raise kids on our own. Many of use see ourselves as eternal foundations of charity. We lavish love on our children with no expectation that our own needs ought to be considered. We endlessly chauffeur, we become ATM machines, we have no lives of our own simply because “that’s what we’re supposed to do.” Unfortunately such charity is no gift. Being selfless and overdoing with our kids gives them no way to learn how to love. Learning to say “no” to our children when our needs have to come first is exactly how our children learn to love others. If we give them everything they ever want, how will they ever learn to consider the needs of others? We cannot fill our own deprivation by overdoing it with our kids. We cannot be our kids friends in an attempt to avoid making our own friends. We need adult friends who can guide us through the maze of parenting. It’s a lot more fun that way.

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How to be in charge of your family

Being in charge of your family is a happy experience for all, at least most of the time. It increases security, character development, and overall joy. Obviously on a given day not all of our kids will be happy. That’s a good sign. It means we’re not allowing them to do whatever they want. We are also practicing not letting our self-evaluation be determined by our kids’ reactions. Liking us is way less important than our kids learning limits to their behavior and ultimately liking themselves. Even if kids run the show in your house it’s never too late to be in command. Old dogs can be taught new tricks. Here are a couple of concrete tips on how to run the show with kindness:

  1. Establish a warm, ongoing working relationship with your kids that respects their necessary needs for privacy while also being endlessly curious about the details of their lives. Listen without judgement or criticism. Ask why they feel what they do. Get curious. Don’t personalize what you learn or preach to them; realize your kids are a work in progress and they need to make mistakes on their own. If you start freaking out, stop yourself and share such reactions with a trusted friend apart from your kids. Ask your young ones about their friends, interests, point of view and personal values. Be forewarned. Children may shut you out temporarily because they don’t feel you can handle what they might tell you about themselves. However don’t give up and don’t hound them. They’ll talk when they are ready to. You’re incredibly important to your kids. In fact, today the biggest complaint children have about their lives is that their parents really don’t know them. Often it’s helpful to take a walk with your kids and let them bring up what they want to tell you. Your efforts alone send a loud message that you really care. The intense warmth you share with your children is the bedrock for being in charge. Said another way, it’s hard for your kids to be really mad at you when they know you always have their best interests at heart. Authentic love is the best way to get cooperation from your kids. It does the trick.
  2. Make ample use of the word, “No.” Don’t second guess your decisions. Be firm even if you’re flat-out wrong. Correct your errors next time. Set limits on use of electronica, internet life, and family and community responsibilities. Your kids may be smart with gadgets but when it comes to life, that’s a whole different story. Their brains are not fully mature until age 25. Obviously trust your kids when they show they can handle your trust. Don’t fret about your kids not being allowed to do what other kids can do. They will find a way to fit in even if they are oddballs. I can speak from personal experience. The values you give them are way more important than how they rate with their friends. Their values, no their gadgets, will bring them close to friends. Obviously as your children get older it’s best to involve them in the rules and consequences of their lives.

For further guidance on this subject I can recommend the following resources: Dr. David Walsh’s book, No, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel’s book Parenting From the Inside Out, and Early Childhood Family Education classes and support groups for parents and kids. You’ll amaze yourself when you’re consistently firm with your children’s behaviors and endlessly kind with their feelings. It works like a charm!


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.

This article was first published in our March/April 2011 issue. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support the website.

Last Updated on October 20, 2022

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