who's the boss

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Parents need to be in charge, even if they don't want to be

Experts point to an ideal parenting model in which they are control but still foster independence

CNN  — 

My younger daughter, age 5, made a failed coup attempt during a recent school-night bedtime routine. In retaliation for my insistence that she actually stay in bed, she uttered the classic pint-sized revolutionary cry: “You’re not in charge of me!”

I had to stifle laughter because her insubordination was so adorably cliché.

“I am, actually,” I replied as I gently guided her back into bed. “I am in charge of keeping you safe and also helping you thrive, which means making sure you get a good night’s sleep and a whole lot more.”

I knew what I meant by “more” even if she didn’t. I made a personal, unwritten covenant with my daughters, and even society, to do my part to raise two happy, virtuous, inspirational adults. And that requires teaching a good deal of life wisdom, role modeling and, at times, imposing behavior.

We are the boss. We can also be our kids’ friend, sometimes. And we are always their teacher and coach. And don’t forget lifeguard.

But we’re in charge, even if we don’t want to be. And it seems a lot of parents don’t want to be.

I’ve noticed that for various reasons (trying to be cool/nice/laid back, maybe laziness, maybe in opposition to being raised with too many rules themselves), many parents let their children call too many shots. I’m talking about screen time, bedtime, purchases, meal options and all the rest of it.

Letting kids decide these matters usually leads to poor outcomes for the kids themselves. A permissive parenting style leads to impulsive behavior, egocentrism and poor social skills, according to Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Baumrind, one of the leading researchers on this topic, described the ideal parenting style as “authoritative,” neither too permissive nor too controlling. An authoritative parent has clear rules and high expectations while being warm and supportive and valuing independence. If we can do that for our children, her research showed, they will have greater self-esteem, social skills and academic performance.

The ideal, in other words, is a Buddhist Middle Way where we are in control but foster independence.

But independence is not the same as giving them what their little id brains want all the time. Children may seem happy about getting their way, but it’s actually an insecure world for them to inhabit where adults don’t seem fully in charge.

Young kids’ brains are not up to the task of making the best decisions anyway. From age 2 until 7, according to the pioneering child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, a child naturally engages in egocentrism and “magical thinking” – believing that they can affect the world with their thoughts – but not critical thinking. From about age 8 to 11, kids tend to actively seek rules, limits and boundaries – but from parents and teachers, not from themselves; they want adults to draw the lines they can safely color in.

Typically, after age 11, critical thinking emerges. Real involvement in rules and limits can effectively begin then, but even teenagers need the assurance that you will always steer them in the right directions.

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    We also know that real life is full of rules – legal, societal, ethical or just politeness – and either we teach them or they will eventually be set straight in less-loving environments such as the playground, the principal’s office, in front of a judge or in a professional boss’ office.

    And being in charge doesn’t mean we need to micromanage behavior or be unkind. We should build in plenty of personal freedom and remain motivated by deep love and affection. But we must also be on top it, guiding them toward success.

    Be a great boss to your kids. Mentor them. Give them opportunities to develop and shine. Always have their backs. Never fire them. Show ‘em who’s boss in the most caring of ways.

    David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting. He also writes “The Wisdom Project” about applying philosophy to our daily lives. You can subscribe to it here.