“But Doctor, they only listen when I scream!”

I remember being shocked when my children didn’t listen to me.  Never mind listen, my children did not obey!  Unless of course I raised my voice (yes, therapists “loose it” with their kids too).  I distinctly remember one such instance, after which my then seven year old daughter screamed in response  “You’re  mean! I’m going to tell all of your patients!” Oh, brother.

I never raised my voice to my parents and usually did as I was told without having to be told a second time (well, at least until adolescence, but that’s another story).  So what was I, along with so many of my clients, doing “wrong”.  What did our parents know that we didn’t?  I mean, we turned out O.K. didn’t we?  The answer is simple: our parents knew that a family is not a democracy.  Our parents were in charge and they did not feel the need to justify that reality.  They didn’t feel the need to coddle us or deliberate every feeling that would arise because we didn’t like the food they put on the dinner table, or the time they set for lights out, or the chores we were assigned, or… I think you get the drift.

So why do we ask our children over and over and over to do the same thing until we finally become so frustrated we find ourselves screaming at the top of our lungs “ARE YOU KIDDING ME, FEED THE DOG!”  It’s simple: so many of us treat our children as equals.  We care so much about hurting their feelings, or damaging their self-esteem or being “mean” that we fail to put in place the simple structure that has allowed the family unit to function since time immemorial: the hierarchy.

I am not suggesting that we turn back the clock to the days of “children are to be seen and not heard.”  Raising these little hearts, minds and souls and preparing them for adulthood is an enormous responsibility and there is a substantial benefit in allowing our children to communicate their thoughts and feelings with us, especially those of hurt or distress.  However, in the interest allowing our children to feel they have a voice, many of us forget that firm rules and consequences are not child abuse.  Clear limits serve a valuable purpose for our children.  We must teach them that they deserve to be heard and that their feelings are important in order for them to recognize their value and their place in the world.  But the world outside of the nest will ask a lot more of our children than a healthy awareness of their own worth and an ability to express their feelings.  They will be told to abide by the student code of conduct at college, they will be given directives from their boss, and they will be informed that their car insurance payment is due once a month.  Their Dean’s office, their employer and their insurance agent are authorities that have implemented structures to benefit the communities our children will become part of and they must enter these situations prepared to recognize when someone else in charge, be aware of what is expected of them and how to proceed accordingly, EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T WANT TO.  The family is the first community our children belong to and it is where they will learn, or fail to learn, how to be part of the communities they encounter in the future.

It is in our children’s best interest to learn how to follow the rules and respect authority and they can be guided to do what we ask the first time.  Ok, maybe that’s pushing it., but at least after the second time.

Incentives like a chore chart where children are rewarded for following the rules several days in a row helps them see that loading the dishwasher everyday benefitted the family and they are getting a benefit in return. It is good for children to do chores and to earn rewards.  Your responsibility to your children is to provide food, shelter, education, exercise and love, everything else is a bonus.  Do you get a bonus in life that you haven’t earned?

If we lead with strength and structure as well as sensitivity, the end result is a heck of a lot better than running our home like an army barracks or having to keep the windows closed so your neighbors don’t think (or know) you’ve lost your mind.

Just saying…

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