Sunday, March 28, 2010

Parents as Authority

We began a discussion last week based upon Dr. Harry Ireton’s “Parents’ Development, The Other Half of the Story.” In the first stage parents are creating an image in their minds of what it will be like to be a parent. The second stage is “Parent as Nurturer.” In this stage parents are totally responsible and ever-vigilant. Today we will discuss the third stage, the stage Ellen Galinski calls “Parent as Authority.”

Here parents are faced with a walking, talking, and talking back eighteen to thirty-six month old toddler. The parent’s task is to decide what kind of authority they will be. This includes deciding what the rules are and how the rules are enforced.

It is a not-so-simple tug of war between the child’s developing autonomy and the parent’s wisdom and authority. Whatever happened to that sweet, cuddly baby? Parents are likely to feel a sense of loss and a sense of being out of control. The toddler does something that may not be safe or something the parent does not want the child to do and the parent says “no.” The child persists and the parent responds. Here is a little vignette to tell this story:

Little Susie and mom are in the kitchen. Mom is cooking. Susie pulls her stool to the stove. Mom says, “No, Susie, the stove is hot. I can’t let you play here. This is dangerous.” Mom moves Susie and the stool away from the stove, gives her a different option, a really great option, but Susie persists in trying to move the stool back to the stove. Mom does all the wonderful mom things such as picking up Susie to watch at a safe distance and explaining the hot stove. However, when she puts Susie down on the floor, Susie and the stool are making their way back to the stove.

Firmer now, mom moves Susie away from the stove and confiscates the stool, trying for an earlier strategy of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But Susie puts up a howl, and between keeping the pot from burning while attending to the ever-autonomous Susie, mom is beginning to unravel. She gives Susie a cracker at the table. The older sibling has come home from school and is hungry and also needs to explain her day at school. Susie climbs onto the table, cracker in her mouth. “SUSIE, NO!” Unceremoniously, mom lifts Susie off of the table and places her onto the floor. Within a few moments, Susie is back on the table and the sugar bowl is tipped over. Mom grits her teeth, sighs, and turns back to the stove.

The challenge at this stage is to be firm, even strict when necessary. Small children like to know what the limits are—they need to know what you accept and what you will not tolerate.

From the imagined world of perfect parenting, to the ever-vigilant stage, to parent as authority—this is a lot to ask of anyone. Nobody’s perfect. Reflecting on your own behavior and understanding that you are doing the best you can at any particular moment in time will see you through this stage and help you develop as you move into the next stage of your development as a parent.

Toad House Publishing

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