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When Children Tell Their Parents What to Do

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Some of my biggest fans live right at home. I’m blessed to have a loving wife who encourages my writing and two adorable children who excitedly ask about the topic of my next article every other week when I appear in the Jewish Link.

Tonight, my 7-year-old daughter asked for the title of my next article and, when I said I hadn’t decided yet, she generously offered, “I can help you.”

“I bet you can,” I replied. “What should it be?” “You should call it ‘Children Tell Their Parents What to Do,’” she proclaimed with self-satisfaction.

Just then, the responsible parental voice inside my head whispered into my ear, “This might be a teachable moment.” So, I quizzed my precocious little girl, “Is it okay for children to tell their parents what to do?” Thankfully, my daughter knew the answer (or else I would have had to seriously question my heretofore parenting) and replied, “No, it isn’t.”

I’ll have to do something special for my daughter (maybe buy her a new car or give her an extra hug) because she unknowingly provided me with a wonderful topic for my column this week.

Sometimes, what seems like common-sense parenting breaks down when it comes to actually doing the stuff of parenting (or “parenting in motion” as I call it). It’s one thing to read a book or to listen to one’s great-aunt tell us about how to properly raise our children, but when the rubber hits the road it can be a real challenge to “do the right thing.”

Many of the parenting challenges we face arise from our children’s attempt to assert their will over us. Simply put, in the words of my daughter, they want to tell us what to do. Sometimes we remain firm, while other times, we may find ourselves caving in and allowing them to do what they want. This can be anything from not sticking to bedtimes and letting our children play “just one minute longer” to not enforcing proper mealtime and allowing our children to eat a cheese stick for dinner while they watch television. Perhaps we’ve had an exhausting day at work and don’t have the energy to be firm. Or, maybe we want to avoid a temper tantrum so we agree to let them go to bed late.

Sometimes, it’s our own issues that get in the way of proper parenting. Perhaps, deep down, it scares us to be assertive and authoritative with our children. Are we afraid we’ll lose their love if we’re authoritative? If we enforce rules in the home, are we concerned we’ll scar our children emotionally and they’ll grow up to have low self-esteem and poor self-confidence?

The field of developmental psychology has shed a lot of light on the emotional needs of children and one thing is clear: children need to be able to be children, which requires that parents behave as parents.

Children often behave like they want to make the rules and they resist being told what to do. But, while they may not go around asking their parents to act like in-charge parental figures, this is exactly what they need to develop healthy self-esteem and self-confidence.

Diana Baumrind, an influential research psychologist, categorized parenting styles into 4 broad types: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Uninvolved (I’ll skip this last type for lack of space and because being too uninvolved isn’t exactly a common problem among Jewish parents).

Authoritarian parents are overly controlling. They demand of their children unquestioning obedience and do not tolerate questions. There is little flexibility in their parenting. Children of authoritarian parents often are insecure, timid and unhappy. They may grow up to be overly dependent and lack self-confidence.

Permissive parents are emotionally nurturing, but don’t assert their authority. Instead, they allow their children to dictate the rules. Children of permissive parents may choose when they eat and what they eat for dinner. They might decide how much television they get to watch or when they go to bed. These children grow up with difficulty controlling their impulses, they have difficulty accepting rules, and they have poor self-discipline.

The healthiest parenting style is an Authoritative one. These parents are loving and nurturing. They set high standards for their children and expect compliance with their rules, while retaining a degree of flexibility. When their children disobey the rules, they receive a consequence. When appropriate, authoritative parents allow their children to have input into decisions. Children of authoritative parents tend to grow up to be independent, confident, self-motivated and follow rules appropriately.

Children require us to create and enforce structure and boundaries. The mistake we sometimes make as parents is that we expect our children to naturally have good boundaries and to police themselves. Or, we may expect them to always unquestioningly do everything we tell them to do. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy. Children are hard-wired to be hedonists, to test limits, and to reject authority. This isn’t a criticism of children; it’s simply an acknowledgement of what it means to be a child. It’s our job as parents to be firm, yet not inflexible; to be loving, yet to enforce the rules. This will allow our children to grow up emotionally healthy.

For my horticultural readers out there (you know who you are), imagine what plants would be like if we didn’t tie them to sticks for support. The sticks enable them to grow upright. Without them, plants would fall over. The same is true for our children; proper parenting is the support stick that enables them to develop healthily (if I start seeing children walking around with sticks tied to their backs, I’ll know who my literal readers are).

Ironically, I suppose my daughter DID tell me what to write about in my column this week. Perhaps as a consequence, I should tie a stick to her back. Or, maybe I’ll just give her an extra hug.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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