These days, there is a widespread tendency for children of all ages to have too much power relative to their parents. I realize it sounds a bit old-fashioned to say this, and in fact I believe this trend has developed in part as a reaction against overly authoritarian parenting styles that dominated earlier generations. However, the pendulum has perhaps swung too far.
In some circles, there appears to be an implicit assumption that children enter the world in a state of pure potential, which needs to be protected and sheltered by the parent so that it can emerge in its fullest form. Parents with this unconscious philosophy believe that it is their job to follow the child’s lead as much as possible. The aim appears to be to foster what naturally emerges rather than trying to shape or mold the child according to parental expectations and values.
Preschoolers don’t need to be consulted about their bedtime.
Though aspects of child-led parenting can work well for both parents and children, there are situations in which it is ill-advised. I once knew a woman who believed in letting her four-year-old take the lead in all things, including bedtime. According to this mom, imposing an arbitrary bedtime would be unnecessarily coercive and thereby do damage to his perfectly-formed little soul. So the little boy often stayed up until 11 pm or later. This meant he was often hours late for preschool. The mom would relate to me the long talks she would have with her son, discussing with him the reasons why going to sleep earlier might be preferable. She wanted to negotiate all of this with his input.
I recall feeling badly for the child in part because his unusual sleep patterns were disruptive and meant that it was difficult for him to participate normally with the things the other children did. But mostly I felt badly for him because of the enormous and wholly inappropriate degree of responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. Deciding – or even substantially consulting on – when he ought to go to bed was not liberating. It was confusing and distressing for him. And it was unfair. He couldn’t possibly have the cognitive and emotional maturity to weigh the consequences of going to bed at 8 versus 11. And he couldn’t be expected to exercise judgment and restraint by making the wiser and less fun choice.
This mom would roll in several hours late for preschool, and I would watch her patiently negotiate with her son, readying him to join the other kids who had long been engaged together. It would take some coaxing, as he would be tired. He didn’t look happier or more care-free. He looked and acted care-worn.
Teens aren’t ready to make big decisions about their future solo.
When children become teens, the ways in which we give them too much power are likely to shift. These are somewhat more insidious, and unfortunately are also often supported by the wider culture. I sometimes speak with parents who have the mistaken assumption that, because their children have fully formed and loudly articulated opinions, they must be listened to and granted authority as if they were adults.
Teens can gain this kind of inappropriate power by claiming harm at our hands. “You’re triggering me, mom,” one teen I know said to her mother when discussing her lagging academic performance. “I don’t feel safe with you!”
One mother I worked with had a 13-year-old daughter who insisted that she had no intention of going to college and intended to start her own business at 18 instead. She was giving this as a reason for dragging her heels in applying to private high schools, which is what her parents had deemed in her best interest. For a brief period, the conflict on this issue became fairly intense in her household. This mother’s previous therapist encouraged her not to press the issue, instructing her that she shouldn’t expect to control every aspect of her daughter’s life! (This daughter is now a senior in high school, and is very much looking forward to going to college.)
Contrast this with advice given to me by a wise friend when I sought out her perspective on parenting my own teen. “Adolescence is the wrong time to take your hands off the wheel.” We all know this, right? Teens are not necessarily equipped to measure long-term consequences of their actions. They may not like us asserting parental authority when it comes to decisions with significant downstream consequences, but it isn’t fair to deprive them of the mature perspective of a caring adult just because we don’t want to upset them.
A Greek myth helps us know that this, like most things, is an ancient dynamic between adults and youth.
Helios was the god of the sun, who each day drove the fiery steeds across the heavens in his chariot. Helios had a mortal son named Phaethon, who was very proud of his Olympian father. One day, wishing to prove to taunting boys that he was indeed the son of a god, he begged his father to grant him whatever he wished. Helios swore on the river Styx to give him whatever he wanted because he wished to please his beloved son. Phaethon demanded that he be allowed to drive his father’s fiery chariot across the sky. Helios knew that this would be a terrible mistake, but he had already given his word. He tried to convince his son to change his mind, but Phaethon would not be dissuaded.
So Helios sadly crowned his son with his golden rays, and covered his son’s body with ointment to protect him from the burning heat. He barely had time to shout a few warnings about handling the fiery, spirited steeds, when the great gates opened and Phaethon flew up in the chariot of the sun.
For a while, all went well, and Phaethon stood beaming with pride in his father’s chariot, but the horses were not easily managed. Sensing a less steady hand upon the reins, they veered off the heavenly path, and careened too close to earth. Phaethon was unable to master the horses. Zeus saw that the sun chariot was in danger of creating great destruction. Sadly, he struck Phaethon down with a thunderbolt, killing him.
Grieving Helios never let anyone else drive the sun chariot again.
Phaethon was mortal, and was rashly asking to be treated as a god. Any parent of a teen will know that adolescents can be filled with an inflated sense that they are immortal and can do anything. Helios’s rash promise was made in part because he wanted to please his beloved son.
Disturbingly, there are many in the wider culture who seem to share the view that kids have to be given more power, and even protected from their parents. In some subcultures, children are empowered by therapists, teachers, and other adults to view their parents as potentially harmful people with suspect motivations. When schools make major decisions at the request of a child without consultation with parents, the message gets reinforced that parents can’t be trusted to have their child’s best interest at heart.
When as a culture we overvalue the child perspective and undervalue that of the adult, we run the risk that young people won’t have the steady hand to guide their way to adulthood.