Limit Setting and Parenting with the Basics of Verbal First Aid

09/21/2010 05:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Much Information Do Kids Really Need?

The other night we saw a commercial that made us both grimace and laugh. It was a TV spot for a bank that showed a 30-something mother with her pre-teen daughter and friends. Instead of talking to each other, they were--what else?--texting. The daughter was hot on the heels of some boy named Chas while Mom was in pursuit of financial freedom. At one point, the mother becomes terribly excited and exclaims (I am paraphrasing) to her daughter: "The bank is texting me about my checking and letting me know how much we have in our account!!!"

My husband, who is from Butte, MT, and grew up in a fairly down-to-earth, conservative home, groaned out loud.

"Are you in pain?" I asked him.

"Only existential pain," he said as waved his hand at the screen. "I mean how much information do kids need these days?"

"What do you mean?"

"A healthy, happy family is not a democracy," he said and changed the channel.

At first I thought it was just his formal Montana upbringing that found the new intimacy between parents and children a bit unwieldy, even awkward. In his family it would have been inconceivable for his parents to place themselves on such an equal footing with the four children. There was an abundance of love and involvement (they were all musicians and played together nearly every night after dinner) but not at the expense of a very clear hierarchy of authority. One's mother or father was not one's buddy. So, being from the Northeast where people stood on stoops and yelled down to the other end of the block at dinner time and our emotions were as visible as our shirts, I dismissed his disapproval as an archaic remnant.

But over the course of the day, as I watched parents interacting with their children at supermarkets, hardware stores, in therapy sessions and at school yards, I began to see it differently.

What I saw was that most parents wanted desperately to be friends with their children. They dressed the same, talked the same, giggled the same with them, jockeyed for position to be the "cool mom" or "hip dad." No topic was out of bounds. They discussed their sex lives, their finances, their politics, and the issues they had in their social and work relationships, not at all aware of how uncomfortable and confused it made their children.

I thought I would be appalled as well, but I wasn't. I was embarrassed. It was a feeling not unlike watching someone leave a bathroom with her dress tucked into her pantyhose or seeing a colleague do something horribly revealing or inappropriate at a party and wanting to cover your face to avoid being a witness the next day.

I took to wondering why...Why are parents so reluctant to be parents? What has happened in our culture and in our families that we are more worried about whether our kids like us than whether we properly prepare them for a life that is almost always challenging and sometimes damned unfair.


Based on the years of work that I've done with adolescents and their parents, it would seem that many adults today have a difficult time with true (meaning benevolent) authority. They vacillate between a laxity that is boundariless and a sporadic struggle for power. I don't believe there is just one reason for this. I think one possibility is that authority for these parents may have been excessive, unyielding, irrational, or capricious. If so, then those people will certainly confuse authority with dominance and cruelty. Precisely because they do love their children they naturally want neither to be that way nor for their children to suffer as they did. It is understandable given the perspective. But it is still erroneous.

Authority for some may be antithetical to their more modern understanding of love, which is easy-going, permissive, unconditional (in the wrong way, as we'll see), and blooming with constant emotional reassurance and validation. In their minds, authority says "No" when love says "Yes." This is not true. Anyone who has trained dogs knows that love and "no" are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the only way to truly give unconditional love is to be able to say "no," to love the person and loathe the behavior.

The "Rod"

Yet others have misinterpreted Biblical injunctions about authority with children and in those cases have possibly rejected it out of hand because they have mistakenly come to associate it with corporal punishment and shame. The most obvious interpretive error is the most popular one which reads the Hebrew for "rod" (as in "spare the rod and spoil the child") for a reed or a stick when in Hebrew it actually is colloquial for the Bible or the "good book." Instead of it calling upon parents to beat their children, it is an injunction to educate them and hold them accountable to the performance of all the commandments--after they have been helped to understand them.

It is a shame that authority has earned itself such a bad reputation because it is perhaps the most essential element of truly effective and loving parenting.

Pack Leadership

When I got my first dog, Angie, I quickly realized I'd have to go to a professional handler for help. Angie, as I've mentioned in other articles, was an 85-pound mix (Malamute, Chow, and Lab) who looks (and sometimes acts) like a black wolf. She was a formidable dog - fiercely protective and highly dog aggressive. When I rescued her from a colleague, she was exceedingly ill, neglected, untrained, and high-strung. Needless to say, I had not been given any warning. So, when I found out what I had signed up for, it was too late to back out. I had already fallen in love.

The pivotal moment came in a park, my second or third day out with her, when another dog (off lead, of course) approached us and she went wild, dragging me half way down a dirt path, yanking a ligament along the way. The other dog tore off into the woods and I limped home.

The trainer I brought her to explained the situation: She thought she was the boss. She was protecting you. In the absence of authority, she assumed control. You have to become her Alpha.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do children. When parents do not provide authority, children assume the dominant position. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is survival. Someone has to be in control.

So what is a parent to do? They can start by revisiting their ideas on authority. As Angie (and the other rescues we've gotten since her) taught us, authority is calm, sure-footed, firm, confident and compassionate. If you are tentative, hesitant, punitive, or vacillating, you are giving mixed messages and can no longer be trusted to lead. Authority is leadership. Children naturally gravitate to leaders, to adults who seem to know what they're doing. Children want someone to guide them while at the same time allow them to make mistakes and learn. Authority says: Follow me. I know what I'm doing. Authority says: I understand what you need. Authority says: I will keep you safe.

The Voice of Authority

As we alluded to before in our discussions of Verbal First Aid, many parents hear the voice of authority as the harsh and angry voices of their own childhoods. A truly authoritative voice is not punitive. It is clear. It speaks firmly, in a low-pitched voice, calmly. Yelling and making idle threats undermines a parent's authority more quickly than almost anything else. Authority can be quite kind and loving even when it corrects negative behavior.

One parent I mentioned in another article on Verbal First Aid for children used to get into yelling matches and power struggles with her five-year-old son in session. I didn't do it. Yes, you did. No, I didn't. Yes, you did. She had been engaged on the level of a peer instead of as a parent. I said to her--You're the mommy. You are the most important authority in your child's life. Rest easy and be comfortable in that authority, knowing that you will do what your child needs you to do, whether or not your child understands or likes it at the moment.

Most parents do not give themselves permission to be the boss and loving at the same time and are terribly relieved to hear that they may. So are most children.

Coveting As A Means of Control

Coveting, consumption and the need to maintain an image of success has changed the way parents deal with their children as well. Instead of spending large amounts of time with their children and confronting behavior immediately and directly, instead of requiring respect, a proper dinner together or the regular performance of chores around the house, a great many parents--particularly those with sufficient funds--take the short cut. They keep their kids busy and hopefully very quiet with techno-toys. They buy HDTV's, blackberries, laptops, and other high-tech isolation techniques. You don't have to discipline a child who is constantly preoccupied with a video game or an I-pod. So long as he's not causing any problems, there's nothing for us to do. No need to look for trouble when there is none, right?

Two Simple Guiding Principles

A healthy family is not a democracy. My husband is right. However, it is not despotism either. It can allow for disappointment. It respects differences of opinion and honors each individual's needs--up to a point. Because it is not run by majority opinion, though, a vote is not taken every morning to determine the family's course of action. That is the prerogative of the grown-ups (and hopefully they are) in charge.

When I did behavioral contracts with children I always warned parents of the imminent dangers of setting new limits. "One, you may be a bit awkward at first. Be patient with yourself and your adjustment to a new role. Two, the better you get at it the more your child is going to test you. He is going to rebel. He may fly in the face of your authority. Stay still. Let him spin. Research has shown that there is a predictable learning curve to that reaction and that the tumult will pass--if you are consistent and maintain the authority over time."

I have done a lot of hand-holding with parents as they experience the back draft of their new-found authority, but when it's all done and the heat has passed, there is a new relationship to be enjoyed, one in which the parent is the parent and the child is able to relax in their loving, sure hands.