Q: I have taught my 4-year-old son that he is the boss. I have given him too many choices and too many explanations. I've allowed him to manipulate, disobey, and disrespect me. Ever since I began devouring your podcasts and newspaper columns, however, my eyes have been opened. It's been a few weeks since I started putting your old-school principles into practice and I've made some progress, but I'm still getting into lots of power struggles. After four years of not being the boss, how do I now turn this ship around? I'm finding that he won't obey unless I threaten him with something. How do I get him to obey simply because I'm the authority?
A: You turn this ship around by doing exactly what you have been doing — with some modifications that I will explain momentarily. The good news is that you realize you've set some very undesirable precedents. For most parents, that's the biggest hurdle of all.
The second biggest hurdle is the understanding that proper consequences are not the key to the proper exercise of parent authority. Parents who rely on consequences almost always wind up doing what you are now doing: threatening. Authority is conveyed vis a' vis a proper presentation. To help parents begin walking down this unfamiliar road, I've broken it down into six essentials:
1. Do not stoop down when talking to a child. That is a submissive posture that undermines a child's perception of a parent's authority.
2. When giving instructions or communicating decisions, use the fewest words possible. In many cases, the fewest words is simply one: No.
3. Preface instructions with authoritative statements such as “I want you to…,” “It's time for you to…,” “You need to…,” and “You're going to….”
4. Do NOT explain yourself or give reasons for your instructions and decisions. Let them stand on their own. Almost invariably, explanations lead right into arguments.
5. When a parent does not give an explanation, the child is prompted by his natural inclination toward rebellion to ask “Why?” or “Why not?” Don't be fooled. These are not questions. They are challenges to the parent's authority. They are invitations to do battle. The proper answer, therefore, to “Why?” and “Why not?” is “Because I said so.” Contrary to mental health propaganda, there's no evidence that hearing those four words is psychologically harmful. They are, after all, nothing more than an affirmation of the legitimacy of your authority.
6. At that point, walk away. Do not stick around, issuing threats.
If the instruction is not carried out within a reasonable period, then pick up the toys (or whatever it is) yourself. Then, later, inform your son of the consequence. And make it BIG! The only consequences that are worth enforcing are those that instill permanent memories. For example, instead of not letting him watch television for an evening, don't let him watch television for a week, during which time he goes to bed immediately after supper.
Last, stay the course. There will be times when you take two steps forward and then a step back. Don't let minor set-backs demoralize you. Schenectady wasn't built in a day, after all.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers questions at www.johnrosemond.com.