As parents, we’re all pretty used to being the ones most “in the know” in the family, right? We’re “the bosses”, “the head honchos”, “the leaders”, “the responsible parties”. Sometimes we don’t own our leadership roles enough, but more often than not, we own them much too much. Fear of permissiveness is so rampant in the parenting world that most of us would rather err on the side of too much than not enough control over our children — if only because of the tsunami of cultural pressure to appear “in control” at all moments. But more on that at another time…
The point I want to make at the moment is that, often, we can get carried away with controlling our children — managing what they say, how they see and perceive, even what they believe. We can even let our need to be in control run amuck with our relationships with our children and find ourselves so enmeshed in micro-managing the details that we lose track of the human hearts involved. And by the way, we don’t even have to be authoritarian to make the common mistake of over-parenting. We don’t have to be mean, we don’t have to “lose it”, we don’t even have to raise our voices to drown out the emerging voices of our little ones.
Now, the pinpoint I want to highlight here is the precise moment when parental control of the minutia of our children’s lives overextends into the realm of controlling their knowledge of, or relationship with, themselves. It just so happens that there are times and places and, in the eventual, whole epochs of their lives when our children will know more than we do about what they think and need and are. Let me say that again, just so we’re clear — sometimes, and (with any luck) increasingly as they age, our children will be the ones who know best how to be them(selves) in the world. Maybe you’ve heard of or remember that old TV show, “Father Knows Best”? Well this is the polar opposite, and our job in this case is to respect their authority.
Indeed, you read rightly, I say “respect their authority”. I choose that phrase specifically because of the reverse context in which it is so commonly used. Parents, regardless of creed or religion, all seem to unify over the subject of the necessity of teaching children to “respect authority”. And this is one instance, or rather a class of instances, where I strongly suggest we afford our kids just that much respect.
It’s an interesting word — authority — meaning both an aspect of one’s power over another, and (sometimes though not always simultaneously) also a description of one’s prowess or knowledge in a certain subject area or practice. It’s an obvious linguistic nod to the notion that knowledge and prowess command certain privileges, and perhaps chief among them being power over others. What I am talking about in this case, though, is the latter definition (and exclusive of the former, if that is more comfortable for the parent in question…), in the sense that we would hope that our children would be learning to be, and in the process of becoming, “authorities” on themselves. Can you think of a better way to encourage that self-knowledge than by respecting their early attempts at such?
(Examples, examples — I am perpetually seeking examples…)
Respecting our kids’ authority can happen in so many simple scenarios. Everything from accommodating their choices of clothes and meal options, or allowing them to pick the next activity of the day, to honouring any of their specific requests, hearing out their opinions, or even celebrating their aspirations to be a fire-truck or mer-person when they grow up. We can respect their preferences about the littlest things, as well as respecting their notions about the grandest. We can believe them when they say they see monsters, or faeries, as well as when they say they are finished with dinner.
Don’t worry, this is really a “Neil Armstrong Moment” staring you in the face — it’s one small step for you… one giant leap for your relationship and your child’s development. It may seem hard to get your mind around, but once you do, the opportunities are everywhere, always waiting for you to offer your respect to your child’s authority on her-or himself. You will find it easier than you think, but watch that you don’t slump into “the land of lip service”, which is worse for your relationship with your children than defying their authority in the first place.
I bet you can make up your own reasons why it’d be beneficial to give children some room to develop and express their own understanding of themselves, their preferences, their beliefs, their values, and their own ways of being in the world. But I’m still going to give you some of mine:
- Developing an understanding of all of the above aspects of self inevitably engenders a level of “self-awareness” that benefits a child’s continuing development and lifelong happiness.
- When they have the chance to figure out and claim what they like, we don’t have to guess what they want as much! And there will be much rejoicing (and much less frustration).
- Allowing some of this process to occur when they are young will save them loads of time when they are in their 20’s trying to “figure out who I am”. We will have given them an uncommon opportunity to see and know themselves for years longer than the average kid.
- Having a clearer sense of their own values, growing accustomed to having their preferences respected, and having practiced expressing them in various scenarios, our children will be more equipped to handle the inevitable peer pressure to do things that conflict with those values and preferences.
- Developing a culture of respect around our children and their authority of self models to, and actually programs, them to expect and offer the same in their relationships throughout life. (You might want to read that one again.)
- Offering them the psycho-emotional space to be their own people in this way, i.e. resisting the urge to control their every particle, thought, and motion, and honouring their attempts to know, and make choices for, themselves affords them a greater chance to become the leaders of tomorrow (rather than the followers).
The bottom line is simply that we had better get used to the idea of our children knowing themselves better than we do, if we want them to reach full maturity. How we approach that is, of course, up to each us, but in the end, approach it we must. Our children are born to outlive their reliance on us — if we are self-secure and bold enough to let them out of our looming shadows.
And again, remember the power of being genuine. If it’s helpful, think of it this way: We aren’t offering our children the benefit of the doubt, but the benefit of our belief.
Be well, my fellow authority respecters.