Charna Cohn: Better to be authoritative than authoritarian in parenting – Gainesville Sun

When we were young, the primary form of parenting was the authority figure: “Do it because I said so. I know more and I know better than you.” That authoritarian approach to another human, young or old, is not respectful and is the source of many parent-child problems.

Back in the 1960s, another doctor, Haim Ginott, presented another perspective on interacting with children which has evolved to an approach called authoritative. He begins with respecting and understanding that children see the world differently. The last decades of brain research strongly confirm this. Once I respect my newborn, infant, baby, child or teen, the way I treat that person is quite different from the way I treat people by using my power to punish or control a situation.

Think of someone you truly respect, someone you could never criticize or embarrass because of the esteem you hold for that person. When you respect a person, you may not agree with what they are doing but you would handle that disagreement differently.

For example, instead of saying, “How could you do such a stupid thing? You know better,” which is authoritarian, try “I got an e-mail from the school that you didn’t turn in your homework. Help me understand the reason because you told me you had done it,” which is authoritative. The child might not have done the correct assignment or forgot to put the papers in her backpack.

Instead of a disrespectful outcry of “How could you wear your pajamas to school? You look ridiculous. Take them off immediately or else.” (authoritarian), try “You look very different with that outfit. What’s the occasion? What’s going on?” (authoritative). The school might be having spirit week and everyone is supposed to wear their pajamas on that day.

Parents cannot know everything all the time. I give children the same courtesy and credit I would give a stranger. I know how it would feel if my boss embarrassed me in front of my co-workers.

An authoritative parent sets reasonable boundaries which are explained: “We don’t jump on the furniture. Your feet could make it dirty. You could break the springs inside.” Instead of: “Get off that sofa right now. Don’t ever do that again!” The younger the child, the fewer the words so a two year old would hear: “No jumping. Sofas are not for jumping”.

All parents have power. We need to set boundaries and be firm and consistent in their enforcement. If the boundaries are reasonable and the consequences relate to disobeying the rule, people can more easily choose to correct their future behavior because their ego has not been attacked or beaten down.

If I don’t meet my quota at work, I know what will happen. If a child hurts someone, the authoritative adult in charge will focus on the injured child and perhaps make the child look at that injured person as he or she tells you how he or she feels. Then the authoritative adult explains that you cannot be with the group until you feel ready to do so without biting or being hurtful.

No one’s fragile sense of self is attacked. The child’s integrity and freedom to choose is preserved. Everyone feels safer and more secure when they know what is expected of them, especially if they are not beaten up physically or emotionally for failing to be perfect.

We often parent our children or treat others the way our parents treated us, regardless of the damage done to our developing and usually fragile sense of self during that time of child-rearing. “If it was good enough for me it’s good enough for my kids. I came out okay and so will they” is often heard. What I wish I heard was, “My children can be treated more respectfully than I was. It can be better for them. I want to change my attitude and give them the respect I never received.”

It is not easy. My parents were typical in many ways, spankings and all. I was fortunate enough to read the wisdom of Haim Ginott’s book “Between Parent and Child” when our first child was a baby.

I practiced changing my ways by talking to our dog. “Bilbo, you are a loving pet but you did a bad thing. Shoes are not for chewing,” is what I would say when I firmly took away the shoes. I was able to stop saying, “Bad dog.” Bilbo learned what he needed to learn and so did I.

Dr. Rosemond means well. So do parents who physically and emotionally abuse their children. Brain research and studies involving child development and behavior have developed tremendously since we were children. It’s time to evolve, to learn and to grow. The result is a relationship with our children that our parents would envy.

— Charna Cohn lives in Gainesville.