The Parent-Child Relationship

I strongly believe that effective parenting is about the relationship between a parent and a child. And just like with any other relationship, this relationship should be about cooperation and mutual respect – about “working with” rather than “doing to,” as Alfie Kohn puts it. Most people would never choose to stay in a friendship where the other person dictated what they did, or punished (hurt) them, or even talked to them the way we often talk to children. And manipulation and control in a romantic relationship is called abuse, but yet it’s okay and even expected that parents control their children. Now before you say that we are not meant to be our children’s friends, that they are not on equal playing ground as us, let’s talk about that.

Are children our equals? Well it depends on what we mean by equal. Do they have an equal amount of power? Nope. By definition children naturally have less power than adults. Which is even more reason why they need as much respect and freedom from us as possible, rather than us abusing our naturally-greater power to make them do what we want. Our rights are not more legitimate than theirs. Are they equally capable of reasoning and control over their emotions and behavior? Nope. Their brains are underdeveloped and they literally don’t have the capacity that we do to control their emotions and impulses. Are they of equal importance and worth? Absolutely, and they deserve to be treated accordingly.

What about the issue of being our children’s friends? According to Webster’s dictionary, a friend is “one attached to another by affection or esteem.” By this definition I would say that friendship is a very important part of the parent-child relationship. We do have important responsibilities as parents that we don’t have with other friendships, but the parent-child relationship doesn’t preclude friendship.

I think a big reason why we tend to “do to” children rather than “working with” them as partners in a relationship is because we do keenly feel our responsibility, our stewardship over them. We feel like it’s our responsibility to make them choose the right, like we are responsible for their actions. This is not true, as each of us can really only choose for ourselves. Our responsibility lies in teaching and guiding and protecting and nurturing. Not surprisingly, influencing our children for good is so much easier with a strong and loving relationship, which is hard to maintain when our kids feel controlled by us. What about our God-given stewardship? We are given stewardship over a group of individuals when we are called to teach or lead in a church setting, but we would never consider that our responsibility was to force them to learn what we were teaching, or subsequently to take action. We recognize that our goal is to invite the Spirit and to teach in such a way that the Spirit can touch their hearts and teach them without compulsion, motivating them to action. With this stewardship comes the gift of inspiration for what these individuals may need, but never does this interfere with agency.

It is our children’s responsibility to choose what they will do with the teaching and guidance we have given them – regardless of their age. Then if they make a choice that we cannot allow (such as one that would infringe on the rights of another person, or one that would cause serious harm or injury to themselves) then our responsibility is to gently stop them to protect the rights and safety of all individuals, and then to continue teaching and discussing, finding solutions together (just remember to wait until everyone is calm and receptive), and modeling the right behavior. Each of us has freedom to choose for ourselves, but that freedom ends where another’s rights and agency begin. Protecting the rights and agency and safety of all individuals is certainly part of our responsibility as parents. However, if we can’t honestly say within ourselves that our reason for setting a limit on our child’s behavior is to protect rights or ensure safety, then perhaps it’s best to ask ourselves if that limit is truly necessary.

What if we need our child to do something that he doesn’t want to do? I certainly get that sometimes we really just need our kid to cooperate. But do we have to jump to force or threats? What would we do if we needed our spouse to do something for us but they didn’t see the necessity or our reasoning? I would hope that we would explain it to them respectfully rather than resorting to manipulation. When we speak to the individual (to their level of understanding and reasoning) in an authentic and respectful way (e.g. “This is how I’m feeling and this is what I need… Will you help me?”), more often than not they will be willing to cooperate and help. And if they’re not, chances are there is something else going on that they may need our help with – unprocessed big feelings, not feeling heard or understood, disconnection or discord in our relationship, etc. Psychologist and parenting expert Laura Markham says that “defiance is not a discipline problem, it’s a relationship problem.” We’ve got to focus on connection if we want cooperation.

Our responsibility to influence for good never ends, but we truly are not responsible for our children’s choices and actions – they are. This is confronting and challenging, but also liberating. We can let go of the stress and pressure that comes with thinking we are responsible for something we can’t control. We can keep our focus on what we are responsible for and what we can control – ourselves. We can choose to improve our ability to influence our children for good, to gain their trust and respect through connection. It takes a lot of trust and humility, but we can choose to “work with” our children. 

So what does “working with” children look like? It looks like explaining our reasoning, and kindly showing them what is acceptable and right. It looks like discussions about everything – our needs as individuals and how to get everyone’s needs met fairly, what might happen if they make a certain choice, solutions to problems that work for everyone, etc. It looks like healthy personal boundaries (just like with any relationship), but not limits that are meant to control or micromanage. It looks like lots of empathy for their feelings and lots of warmth and connection. It looks like respect and guidance and cooperation. When children are treated this way they are much more likely to reciprocate and to internalize these things.

Of course this particular relationship requires more patience and work on our part than most other relationships (especially when we’re tired or overwhelmed or triggered, which I will be the first to tell you is not easy and I am often not great at) because these little people are at a disadvantage biologically and experience-wise, while also feeling strongly their need for autonomy. It’s easy to feel challenged by their behavior and their needs. But they are very capable of learning cooperation and how to be part of a healthy relationship when we model it for them and work with them. No relationship is perfect, but that’s not the goal. Simply seeing our children as people worthy of respect and freedom (just like every person is), and our relationship with them as an actual reciprocal relationship, sets us up to choose respect and cooperation more often. Let’s begin to change the way we view children and our relationship with them.

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Our Job As Parents

Mainstream parenting experts tell us our job is to control our children, and they are full of secrets and tricks to get our kids to do what we want (whether it’s fear and shame and coercion, or bribes and rewards).

But I’m not buying it.

The scriptures and counsel from modern-day prophets make clear that coercion is not the Lord’s way nor His desire for our relationships.

“Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.” –David O. McKay

I firmly believe that our job is actually to connect and nurture and inspire. To lead by example and to guide. It’s to create an environment where they are safe and free to learn and make mistakes and try again, to feel encouraged and supported rather than ashamed or afraid. Our job is to set personal boundaries and to ensure everyone feels safe in their home and gets their needs met, to protect property and the rights of every family member, but always to do so with kindness and firmness and clarity. Our job is to work with our children, to solve problems together, to treat them as people worthy of respect, and to trust them to make good choices when they are given the conditions they need to thrive. Essentially, our job is to build and strengthen relationships with our children, and then live how we want them to live. Treat them how we hope they will treat others. Nurture and support them as they become the people they are meant to become, not try to force them into the people we think they should become. 

It struck me recently that our children were individuals before they came to this earth. They had and have unique strengths and weaknesses, talents and gifts. They had agency and they have already used it wisely. They are not blank slates for us to make something of (or worse, naturally bad people that we have to “civilize” and make good) — they are people who chose to keep their first estate, to follow the Savior and come to earth to gain experience and become more like Him. They are so capable of becoming greater than they already are, by His grace and their free will. They are so capable and have so much potential to continue choosing Him. They don’t need us to force them to choose Him, or to choose for them. They need us to provide an atmosphere for growth and learning and light, opportunities to learn of Him without compulsion or fear, so they can feel of His love and His spirit. Then they will be motivated to choose Him again and again.