I recently read about a dad who dialed 911 when he discovered that his teenage daughter had posted naked pictures of herself on Facebook. He was desperate, and to him this was an emergency. The dispatcher, though, wasn’t amused. She wasn’t in the position to do anything about it, because she wasn’t the girl’s parent. He was.
He was in the midst of the battle of all battles: the parenting power struggle. Yet too often, by the time we have teenagers, we feel helpless. But parents, there is no one else. You are in the unique position to influence your teens’ lives, and you need to take it. Does your teen have a cell phone? Does your teen have a computer? Internet access? A comfortable room? Dessert? None of those things is a necessity, and likely most of them are paid for by you. Therefore, you have leverage.
Unfortunately, by the time the Parenting Power Struggle rages in the teen years winning it is much harder. It’s easier to have an effect when children are younger. Yet too many parents give up in the early years, perhaps without even realizing it. Their kids don’t want to go to bed until midnight, so they stay up late. The kids want to eat junk food, so the parents serve chicken fingers. Because of the absence of arguments, the parents feel like the children are obeying—after all, they’ve found no need for discipline. But children can’t obey if no rules are laid down. The parents have thrown in the towel.
But what happens when we throw in the towel too early? We don’t end the Parenting Power Struggle. We simply delay it. Think of the amount of freedom that you give your kids as the shape of an upside-down pyramid. When kids are little, you don’t give them much leeway. But because of this, they learn to make good decisions, since you’re providing structure, security, and a moral foundation. As they age, you can give them progressively more freedom—the wide part of the pyramid—because they won’t abuse it.
If, instead, we let our little ones rule, you’ll find your parenting more like a right-side up pyramid: you’ll have to crack down hard in their teen years. Just when you should be loosening the strings to let them out of the nest, you’re tightening them because you’re scared of what they’ll do.
So how do we enforce standards when they’re young? It doesn’t involve being mean, and it certainly doesn’t involve yelling. If you yell a lot but your child never actually changes his or her behaviour, then you haven’t done anything except raise the volume of the house and teach your child to tune you out. How much better to remain calm, express your disapproval, and then remove a toy, enforce a time out, or take away TV privileges. Do something with consequences, and kids will learn. Raise the roof, and kids will keep doing whatever they want to, they’ll just do it more sullenly.
This kind of effective, consequence-based discipline is hard, though, because it requires consistency, and some days we just don’t have the energy to deal with a kid who is screaming because they have lost their game boy, or their Lego, or their chance to watch cartoons.
That’s why we need that long-term perspective. Put in that work in the first five years, and you’ll have less of a chance that your daughter will be broadcasting X-rated pictures of herself ten years later. Don’t be afraid to be the boss, whether your child is 7 or 17. Steering kids in the right direction is what a parent is for. And there really is no substitute.
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