When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck?
Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?
The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.
One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?
If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.
On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course.
What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.
What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior?
If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played.
Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.
As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.
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