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By "Today" contributor
updated 4/19/2006 10:32:49 AM ET 2006-04-19T14:32:49

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #4:
Appoint Yourself Benevolent Dictator
Families are not democracies. Kid judgment can be immature, unreasonable, and self-serving. If you’re not making the decisions, or are letting the kids buffalo you into doing things their way, against your better judgment, then you are depriving your kids of leadership. It’s time for a new form of governance that couldn’t be simpler. You have the final vote. Period. End of story.

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Alisa could have been the poster child for the League of Women Voters — this 7-year-old wanted everything to be fair (from her perspective) as well as to have the final vote on every family decision. As an only child, her parents, Yvonne and William, tended to dote upon her and readily admitted that the kid was a tad spoiled. A tad turned out to be an understatement — this child felt that the world, not only her family, revolved around her.

Alisa chose the restaurant to go to for dinner, as well as the movies to rent from the video store. She even called the shots on her mom’s new car. When it came time to purchase a new one, Yvonne wanted a standard minivan, but her daughter threw such a nagging fit that the parents caved in and bought a special edition model. When Alisa described the vehicle during one of our sessions, I couldn’t believe the gadgets and gizmos involved. Yvonne confirmed that they had purchased a van that was advertised on one of the cartoon networks — the car was color-coded to match a certain cartoon character, and it came equipped with a built-in television and video player as well as a video game deck. The amenities of this special edition added over $2,000 to the price of the minivan but apparently Alisa’s vote was final, and she was thrilled.

Needless to say, I was less than happy with a kid wielding so much power in a family. It’s one thing if Mom wants the fancy car and sees value in an onboard entertainment center, but it’s quite another when the child holds the parents hostage to unreasonable desires by fussing and fretting. And this wasn’t an isolated event — the family had come to see me at the request of Alisa’s first-grade teacher, who was concerned that the child was becoming too bossy in class as well as on the playground. The teacher was most disturbed by Alisa’s constant interrupting, questions about why the class had to do certain projects and worksheets, and her tendency to cry when she didn’t get her way. Thank goodness that Yvonne and William brought her for counseling — she was becoming a tyrant even before she had hit her 8th birthday!

What I taught the parents was that they had unintentionally given up the reins of power and control to their daughter. Sure, they meant well and felt that caving in was showing Alisa how much they loved and cared for her. However, the damage that was being done was tremendous. Kids need to learn boundaries and how to accept them gracefully. They should understand that their parents and teachers will listen to the kids’ wants and desires, but the adults are in charge and generally get to call the final shots. Families where the child is given the final vote are usually chaotic. Children are too impulsive and inexperienced to handle that. Sure, their desires need to be heard, but the adults have the responsibility and the job of making the final decision.

Having to live within parental guidelines or learning to “take no for an answer” may not be fun, but it is imperative that this process occur during childhood. Kids raised in child-run autocracies such as Alisa’s never quite learn the self-discipline necessary to get along well with others socially or on the job later as adults. Child-run families produce bratty, demanding children with parents who are held hostage to their child’s next command or tantrum.

Parenting by democracy, where the child has an equal vote, only works well when the kid is mature, can view and understand others’ perspectives, and is capable of planning ahead in an organized fashion. Alisa was clearly not a candidate for a democratic household. In a democracy the family members have an equal vote, and as long as they’re all on the same page of the book, things seem to go along well. However, when the constituency (the kids) feels differently than do the officials (the parents), all heck can break loose. Arguing and trying to prove points take precedence over decision making, and chaos often results. When parents abdicate control to the children, when they put them on equal footing in terms of voting or veto power, no one seems to be satisfied.

Compassionate, but Still in Charge
And that’s where the benevolent dictator style of parenting comes in. Benevolent means kind, caring, and compassionate, and dictator refers to the parent having the final vote. In a benevolent-dictatorship family all of the members have a vote (but not necessarily an equal vote), and at times the parents will yield to the kids’ wishes if they are reasonable. But if a compromise cannot be reached, that’s when Mom or Dad takes charge, closes the discussion, and makes the final decision. If the kids understand that this is the way that the family is run, they will accept and respect the process. Sure, there will be some grumping and “it’s not fair” statements. Well, maybe it isn’t always fair, but the adults have the ultimate responsibility for the safety and welfare of the children and therefore the responsibility of calling the final shots.

It took several sessions, but Yvonne, William, and Alisa were able to begin their new life as a benevolent-dictatorship family. The souped-up minivan remained, but Alisa learned to ask rather than to demand and to finally take “no” for an answer. Sure, she was not pleased with the changes in the family’s power dynamics, but she grew to be a better person because of it. Not only did her parents feel more comfortable with her demeanor but so did her teacher, who reported that she was much less fussy and more of a team player at school.

Once in a while I’ll see a family in therapy who has already established a benevolent dictatorship. Marcus’s family was a good example of this. This 12-year-old delighted in describing his parents’ crimes to me — how Mom was big on saying “because I said so” and how his father, Mario, always seemed to have the final vote on just about everything. If one were to hear only Marcus’s side, it would appear that what he wanted mattered little to his parents.

However, I had the opportunity to get to know his folks intimately as I was counseling the family following the death of a grandparent. Mario, in his late thirties, came from a rather traditional Hispanic family and worked as a plumbing contractor. His wife, Suzanne, was the oldest of seven siblings, having helped her parents with the younger ones until she left for college. Her youngest brother was currently sharing their home, along with Marcus and his 9-year-old twin sisters.

Both of Marcus’s parents brought a lot into their parenting that was based in their own childhood family experiences. Mario’s father rarely had time to play with his three children, and he had vowed to spend more quality time with his own kids. Even though he worked long hours in his business, he still made it home for dinner and to help with the nightly bedtime ritual.

Suzanne couldn’t shake her memories of “so much to do and not enough time to do it,” having been responsible for helping to raise her six younger siblings. Always having been an organized person, she brought to parenting her penchant for structure. Dinner was set for 6:30, followed by baths and some family time together. Then, off to bed for the whole crew while she and Mario readied the house for the next day.

Suzanne and Mario had little trouble sticking to their schedule, and while all three kids were known to grumble and gripe about how Mom and Dad seemed to have a rule for everything, the kids generally went along with the flow. Curfews and bedtimes were adhered to even though the brood would have opted for a few more hours of TV time at night. Errand day meltdowns (“I refuse to go to Home Depot and the grocery store today. Mom, you should go some other time!”) were unheard of. Marcus’s folks believed in running their family as a benevolent dictatorship, and they were very good at it. Mario and Suzanne parented effectively and efficiently because of their commitment to taking a stand, even when it meant overriding their kids’ wishes.

Benevolent-dictator parents avoid many of the hassles, disrespectful comments, and arguments that parents in family democracies or child-run autocracies tend to face. And what is even more important is that benevolent-dictator parents are not only obeyed but are respected by their kids.

Be sure, though, to remember the benevolent in benevolent dictator. It’s important that your child feels not only loved, but respected. Listening to (but not necessarily agreeing with) your child’s point of view, opinion, or argument — as long as it is presented politely — goes a long way toward proving how much you do respect your child’s thoughts and opinions.

I’ve often used the technique that if the child is adamant about taking a stand against his folks’ decision, then he can put his argument in writing. It’s amazing how successful this technique has turned out to be for many of the families that I work with. For instance, if Alex sincerely believes that his 8:30 p.m. bedtime is too early and that he can handle staying up a half-hour later, then he needs to express his ideas in writing, if a short verbal discussion hasn’t convinced his parents. What generally happens is that unimportant or tangential issues are often dropped when the kid has to put pencil to paper (that takes effort!). Only the truly essential issues are worth the trouble, and personally I feel that if the kid is willing to take the time to make his case in writing, then Mom and Dad need to give it special attention. Perhaps Alex is old enough to grab another half-hour of television before going to bed or to stay up a bit later reading a favorite book. My experience has shown me that those issues worth writing about are often significant and worthy of parental attention and perhaps compromise.

Children want limits and guidelines and are calmed by the knowledge that the parent is willing to set fair rules, employ veto power when necessary, and lead the family effectively and efficiently. Even though there will inevitably be some gripes, groans, and complaints, the end result is a more harmonious family unit.

Living the Law
Would you like to set up a benevolent dictatorship in your family? Consider the following:

  • Understand the difference between child-run autocracies, democratic families, and benevolent dictatorships. Each type involves a different level of parental involvement in rule making and the meting out of consequences. Think of these three parenting types as placed along a continuum of who’s calling the shots — with the kids in charge in a child-run autocracy and the folks calling the shots in a benevolent dictatorship. The democratic family is in between, which requires an exquisite balance of kid self-control, maturity, and parental trust.
  • Take into account the ages of your children. Just as important, though, are the maturity levels of your kids — plenty of teens are less reasonable than 8-year-olds, and a family democracy mandates the usage of good kid common sense and compassion. If this isn’t where your family is at this point, don’t go there! Bypass the democracy and run toward the benevolent dictatorship. Finally, try not to keep up with the Joneses. Your next-door neighbors may have a higher tolerance for disrespect or misbehavior, but that doesn’t mean that you have to lower your standards.
  • Parents, back each other up when a unilateral decision must be made. Even if all of the kids are voting in the other direction, or if you feel that their desires are either unsafe, unwarranted, or just plain too expensive, call it your way. I’ve often found that it’s best to discuss sticky situations behind closed doors, without little ears prying into your adult conversation and decision-making process. Also, you don’t need to hear tidbits of advice or opinion coming from the peanut gallery as you and your partner discuss the pros and cons of a choice. Remember: Judgment calls often reside in the gray areas of parenting. The more clear-cut issues are the easy ones to decide; it’s those darn ambiguous, fuzzy decisions that mandate calm, concentrated thought and adult discussion. Don’t be impulsive — take the time to “take five” and get away from the opposing attorneys (the kids) while considering your options and alternatives.
  • Learn to take the heat. Sure, you may not be voted Parent of the Year by your children, but you certainly will have my respect, as well as that of other parents. Raising kids is not a picnic — it can be trying and is often downright difficult. But you know what’s right and wrong in your head and your heart, so follow your instincts even though you may be accused of being bossy or unfair. If your decision is in your children’s best interest, it will pay off in the long run.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let the kids have a vote when it’s reasonable, and even if you disagree somewhat, let them call the shots on the little stuff. Remember, this is a benevolent dictatorship, not an unfair, my-way-or-the-highway style of parenting. Allowing children to feel that they have a say shows respect for their needs and desires and proves that you are willing to listen. Even if you disagree, if the consequence of your decision is negligible and the feeling of control and respect that your child gains is substantial, why not go for it? In addition, allowing your child to have a substantial voice in the minor decisions also begins her training for making larger and more significant decisions in the future. If these minor decisions are successful, she’ll gain greater confidence. If not, she’ll begin to realize that your input as a parent is important and worthy of her attention.

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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