(Back to) the Basics V: Who’s the Boss

Today, I want to return to this (increasingly in-depth!) series on basic tools, perspectives, and approaches for Natural Parenting, Attachment Parenting, Cro-Magnon Parenting — whatever your favorite monicker. Before I do that, though, here are links to all of the other posts in this series, in case you want to check them out (again?) as well:

(Back to) the Basics

(Back to) the Basics II: Hold that Baby!

(Back to) the Basics III: Mirror, Mirror, Two Feet Tall

(Back to) the Basics IV: Take Some, Leave Some… Information!

As is the case with this series, I’m going to lay out the central point of my argument for you at the outset. That way, if you only have 5 minutes before your little one needs your focus back, you can still get the point without spending all of your allotted time. If you have more than a sec, I’ll include additional details and ideas after the main topic — which is this: Our children were built and born to follow our lead(s); if we guide them using the tools nature gave us, and with confidence enough to give them total respect, then they will cooperate with us far more often than any other humans possibly could or would. That doesn’t mean they will comply with every single one of our requests (and there will be plenty more times we won’t comply with theirs for that matter) but when the focus of our interactions is co-operation, instead of compliance, then we’re much more likely to get both. It’s kind of a zen mind trick. In order to be followed, you must make no demand to lead. The more you have to argue for your power, with threats, punishments, and other chest-beating, the less you have it. Trust that they want to follow you, that they’re neurologically compelled to imitate what you model, and that they are psycho-emotionally driven to adapt to the world as you give it to them — the odds are really stacked in your favor — and guide your sweet, fresh humans-just-learning-the-ropes with compassion, confidence, and cooperation on your own part, and they’ll be right with you.

That’s the bottom line for this post: Lead by example, by word and deed, with kindness, flexibility, and confidence in your role, focussing on how to work together to create solutions to life’s little hiccups, empathizing with your kids and teaching them to empathize with others. If you get nothing else from this post today — that’s the basics. If you want a little more on this topic, feel free to scroll on down for some side-thoughts and suggestions.

Before going any further, I want to say a bit more about how much you have going for you in your candidacy for home commander(s) in chief. I wasn’t joking when I say our babies are “neurologically compelled to imitate” us. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that infants are scouring their environs for faces and locking in on them in order to imitate and be imitated, from their earliest days, and that their brains are using those imitation games to begin wiring the child’s motor system, motor-limbic connections in order to interpret feelings (both experienced feelings and witnessed ones), and the mirror neurons that will help the growing brain learn how to do everything, feel everything, and interpret all of the other doers and feelers in their lives! That’s how much their proper development depends on copying us.

But it doesn’t end there. Neuro-psychologically speaking, many of the most recent historical developments in the human brain are geared toward connecting with other people and navigating the widely varying, necessary interactions of being such highly social creatures. Mirror neurons themselves are there to make the brain copy motor actions in virtual scenario(s) every single time we see an action, hear an action, or even imagine an action. In order to interpret the emotion in a companion’s smile, for example, our brains first run a simulation of the muscles being used in the face we are observing, then after “trying on” those motor actions, the brain gets a sense of how it feels to make that face, then has a visceral feeling of the emotion of a smile, before it can be named in the mind as “happy”. Without these fairly unique brain structures (only us higher primates have mirror neurons as far as we can tell), we wouldn’t be able to have the complex variety of interactions we have, the numerous cultures that we’ve derived, or the innumerable languages that connect us. That’s how much is riding on babies mimicking their care-givers, and those are the reasons the brain developed structures to capitalize on and engender imitation.

Furthermore, as developmental psychology currently understands it, babies come into existence without a sense of self and other. The veil hasn’t yet dropped between them and the rest of the world. Over time they come to see themselves as a separate being from mom, but in the beginning, they are one and the same with her. Mirror neurons seem to work in a self-opposing fashion in infancy, aligning the baby with mom and allowing for a mutual identification between them, but they also help the baby learn to differentiate from the mother by firing stronger for the baby’s own actions than for ones which are simply witnessed. They’re doubly driven to follow us via this mechanism, though, because, first, they see us as who they are, then later as the Platonic ideal (or even as gods) who they mimic without even being able to resist, and their development constrains them to follow us in order for their brains to differentiate themselves from us.

Finally, once there is bonding happening, and identification with each other happening, and care-giving happening, and good-feeling-sharing happening, and hard-feeling-coping-together happening, then we’ve begun to cultivate a variety of emotional connection that inspires further “little ducking”, as I like to call it. Until quite recently, whenever we needed the girls to follow us (through a crowd, or along a certain path with distractions, etc.) we would go, “Whack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack” and they would answer and follow in line. This is because it feels good both to the brain and the emotional heart to be connected, to be in cooperation, to be part of a unit. Practically speaking, it’s just a lot safer to be in a group — it gives the brain a better chance to do more developing if only because it perceives itself as more secure — so there are lots of mechanisms and processes to ensure that we prosper in our group(s). Even before or without, but especially once there is a psycho-social basis that nurtures the neurological drive to imitate with emotional comfort, security, identification, etc., then the natural design is complete and co-operation is assured as the normal state.

“If it’s all so well designed to make the kids follow me, then why the hell do I have to yell so much?” you may be asking… Well, the potentially kicking-myself-in-the-butt truth is that often times, after years of repeatedly thwarting all those natural mechanisms for cooperation, we’ve trained our kids not to follow us — and we, in turn, feel compelled to hound them into compliance on every single little detail, kicking and screaming throughout the entire teeth-pulling process of life. Under those conditions, each time we ask, demand, or make a plea for compliance, we weaken the connections that inspire cooperation. And then it’s Downward Spiralsville, for sure.

Here’s the short list of things that you may be doing, and probably lots of other parents you know are doing, to thwart your roles as leaders in your families, and/or your abilities to generally have your kids do what you’d prefer:

  • Doubting yourself — You may not know everything that you think you should for this whole parenting gig, but getting down on yourself for it isn’t going to do anything but make things worse — if you feel you lack some info, get it, otherwise trust yourself, recognizing that children can smell a lack in your guide-confidence just like horses can.
  • Fearing chaos — You won’t be able to control everything, and it would be stupid if you could, so don’t worry when things get hairy. Kids cry, they make loud noises, then they subside, emotions come back into balance (as long as we let them), and families carry on together — everyday. Don’t be afraid to get down in the mud for a minute, you’ll be able to clean up better if you head in knowingly than if you get dragged in unwittingly. 
  • Tamping down emotions — This goes along with the last one. If we don’t resist our kids’ emotions when they come up, and instead make room for him/her, say, to be bummed that play time is over, then those emotions can come and go without upsetting the trust and connection in the relationship (in fact, processing those tough emotions will actually strengthen the relationship!), and co-operation can be possible again, and usually all faster and smoother than when we try to fend off our kids’ emotions.
  • Demanding compliance — I’ve at least begun prefacing this point already, but the more we focus on making our kids do every single thing we can think of to make them do, the more we wear out their willingness to do what we ask — period. I’ll say more about what to do instead in a moment.
  • Being inflexible — We may have even a very strong preference about something, but for the sake of engendering and maintaining a sense of cooperation, we would do well to be open to input from our kids as to details, and co-operative with them about their preferences when making agreements with or requesting things of them.
  • Punishing non-compliance — Threatening our kids, or actually punishing them for not immediately doing what they’ve been asked, or because they forgot to do what they were asked, or even because they did what they were asked not to do, neither encourages compliance (in the short or long term), nor inspires cooperation, nor benefits the relationship or your role as leader in it in the slightest. Again, I’m about to say more about what to do instead.

MLKI had initially intended to spend some time in this post discussing a smattering of the research on how miserably coercion fails to insure compliance, and how deleterious it is to the parenting bond, but for the sake of time (and because I want to give you some ideas of what to do instead) I’ll just say this: The research is out there, and it is quite clear that when we use externally motivating measures to coerce children into repeating or ceasing certain behaviors, we can achieve a thimbleful of success for a limited amount of time and under certain circumstances if and only if we are willing to increase measures over time and remain on hand to enforce the current measures. At the same time, by relying on punishment, threats, and praise to curb or encourage certain behaviors, we sully the trust in the relationship, and set ourselves up as loving tyrants — to be adored but also feared — and thus keep our children captive in a state of insecurity. If you want to read more on how punishments, authoritarian parenting, and coercion work against our roles as leaders, and fail miserably to positively affect behaviour over the long term, while wrecking the parent-child relationship, check out any of the above links, and/or pick up a copy of Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting.


If you’re like most of us parents starting out, you’ve probably done at least one of those things above — either leaning toward being afraid to lead too much, and/or at turns, leaning toward being afraid that you won’t be followed if you don’t demand it. It’s perfectly normal in this day and age, when we grow up so sheltered from what it’s like raising children, and we’ve ventured so far into coercive hierarchical structures of society, and been so clouded by the false prophets of Behaviorism. It makes sense, actually, that by now, our development as humans would be off enough that we would fall into any one or all of the traps above, rather than flow smoothly with our leadership-parenting roles.

It’s fully possible to bring ourselves, our kids, and the relationships we share with them back from any of these troublesome paths I’ve just mentioned, but it’s a heck of a lot easier not to start down them in the first place. Once we have, then it takes some reorienting, recalibrating, and reprogramming to get us headed back in the right direction, and we’ve boogered up some of our tools in the process, as well. So if you’ve gotten headed in the wrong direction right out of the gate, then give yourselves some empathy and some time to come together again and find your own way(s) back to co-operation. If you’re just starting out, and the imitative mechanisms are still pristine, and the relationship is uncomplicated by the trust issues resulting from previous punishments, etc., then you may never experience the disconnect or disruption in co-operation that so many of us parents have when we’ve struggled with how to lead. In either case, my suggestions are generally the same for how to proceed, as follows:

  • Nurture the bond — I promise, I haven’t entered into a secret contest to see how many times I can insert this phrase into this blog — it’s just absolutely the most vitally important thing to this whole parenting trip. By caring for the fledgling connections we have with our little ones — responding to their needs immediately and calmly; expressing interest in them; relating with them; playing, having fun, and pretending with them; showing the world to them; empathizing with them, and letting them cry in our arms — we build trust, reliance, identification, and naturally inspire cooperation in all parties involved (this means you too). More on this topic here.
  • Lead with confidence — Imagine the greatest leaders in history — not the most powerful dictators, but the most influential people. They didn’t/haven’t spent time coercing their followers. They never/haven’t argued for their right to lead. They’ve inspired us and been with us in all of the important steps, guiding with love and assurance. We don’t have to beat our chests to be in charge in our homes. We also don’t have to be afraid to lead. If we trust in our roles as the leaders, and trust in the tools we have and are developing with which to lead, and act with faith in the natural design of human parenting — then when we guide, our children will follow. 
  • Model appropriate choices — This is my other “most often repeated suggestion”, again, because it’s so important, but also because we’re doing some form of modeling all the time (and therefore ought to get conscious and conscientious about it!). Our kids are watching, they’re geared to involuntarily imitate, and they have no moral or pragmatic filters to discern content — so we would do well to be impeccable with what we show them. And further, we would also do well to use the modeling mechanism to teach our kids what we want them to know — everything from how to  get a spoon to their mouths, and how to climb down stairs, to how to ask politely, and how to handle adversity. If there is anything you want them to do — let us show them.
  • Focus on co-operation — Remember that co-operation supersedes compliance. If we want our kids to do what we want and not do what we don’t want more of the time than not, then we have to be willing to stop counting the number of times we meet resistance, and start counting the times we’ve met each other part way. Although Nature has put us squarely in the leadership role in our families and equipped us with all the necessary tools to fulfill that role — over the long haul of the parent-child relationship, it is mutuality, respect, and cooperation that will sustain the vital integrity of the relationship which feeds/is the identification our children have with us encouraging them to side with us, follow us, and/or do as we would do, prefer, and ask.
  • Be flexible — This informs the previous two. Two sure signs of being our most “leadery” selves is that we don’t have to demand absolute obedience in every matter, and we don’t have to say “no” every two seconds. We can relax (since our roles are undoubted) and be soft (rather than rigid) and when there is some negotiation necessary, or some allowance that would be more conducive to the flow, or some feelings that need to be processed beforehand, we make space for that because it doesn’t weaken our leadership, it strengthens it. Flexibility (without breaking) is the surest reflection of potent leadership.
  • Listen — We can’t be good leaders, co-operate, or be flexible if we aren’t hearing what our children feel and need. When something goes wrong, we should start by asking questions and listening rather than by lobbing commands at “the offending party(s)”. Remember it this way — early listening saves later yelling. Plus, every time we listen to our children, we model for, and teach, them to listen to us.
  • Trust — It’s important to trust ourselves in this process — to recognize that we can do this one step at a time, and that we can rely on ourselves to know/find what’s best for our families. We can also trust the process of nurturing. That process is born into us, it knows what it’s doing through us, and has it’s plan for each of us. Don’t worry about it. And last but most importantly, we need to trust our kids. They are just development machines. If we give them the right input, they’ll grow unbelievably well — they’re born to. But furthermore, we would do well to extend our trust to those little individuals in front of us. They are good little creatures. At the very least, we owe it to them and to us to look for the best in them, and to believe the best about them. As Alfie Kohn quotes educator Nel Noddings, in all circumstances we should “attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts” (Unconditional Parenting p130). We can assume the best — no matter what the scene looks like when we get there. 
  • Give away control — Let’s face it, when our kids leave home to make their own way(s) in life, we want them to have as much self-mastery as possible for their tender ages. We can’t and wouldn’t want to teach them everything that they need to know, but we can teach them to rely on themselves for learning it. The best way to do that is to start from very early, giving them opportunities to be in charge of themselves. If we let them make tiny decisions first (and respect those), then as they develop, give them more choice(s), and encouraging them as they develop further to make their own decisions about things, they learn to listen to their own preferences, and to honour their own ways. The fact is, we may want them to be obedient to us when they’re younger, but if we hoard all of the control they won’t think to listen to themselves when they’re older — they will just be someone else’s sheep. If we want them to learn to follow themselves, then we have to give them opportunities to lead themselves too.

I know this is a lot of information, and I may well have overtaxed your interest and/or your memory with the scope of this post. But be that as it may, you can take your time whittling through it — if you can remember nothing else, though, I hope you will at least take away this one edict: Lead by being a leader not by trying to rule. And may your nature, your compassion, and your own wisdom guide you as you guide your family.


Be well, inspiring and powerful leaders!


About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE, CMNEC

I'm a cofounder of the Center for Emotional Education, and I've spent the last 16 years working with the world's most powerful women, femme, and nonbinary leaders who have been incredibly successful, but who still struggle with debilitating emotional overwhelm that gets in the way of their relationships, their health, and their work. I help them learn how to operate their emotional system, heal from longstanding emotional wounds, and rewire their brains to be better at feelings, so they can finally have the relationships, the health, and the next level business success that they deserve. I lead courses and trainings, and offer 1:1 healing and growth support for my clients all over the world — so that they can move from emotional overwhelm to Emotional Sovereignty, and fully own their lives.
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