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Who’s the boss? Learning from dogs…

January 7, 2010

I didn’t see this article (“Becoming the Alpha Dog in Your Own Home”) when it was first published in the New York Times this past November, but someone recently brought it to my attention. It seemed particularly timely to me because I also recently had a conversation with a friend about saying “no” to our kids’ request to get a dog. My kids have received a very clear “no” from me to the “Can we get a dog?” question and almost never ask. I have multiple reasons for my “no” and they’ve been discussed with kids. More important than the explanations, however, is the manor in which the “no” is delivered: calm, certain, firm, and rational. My friends’ kids, however, keep asking her for a dog. Although she has said “no,” she admits that she leaves some room for debate in her delivery.

In my work with parents struggling with defiant toddlers and preschoolers who “don’t listen,” I often find some parental discomfort with being the authority with their children. Granted, some children are naturally more compliant and cooperative and some more oppositional in nature, but I think the parents’ confidence and comfort with being “the boss” greatly influence their parenting style and tone, which in turn influence how well children will listen and comply. I believe empowered parents feel comfortable with their role as an authority. Parents may be uncomfortable being the boss for a number of reasons, including a desire to be different from their own parents or perhaps holding unrealistic expectations regarding child behavior. In my experience, children do best when the receive warmth and loving attention from parents who are comfortable setting and enforcing limits. (See my previous post on unconditional love and authoritative parenting for more on this topic.)

I’ve never trained a dog, but I imagine the stance you have to take when shaping behavior and disciplining would  be one of firmness and authority. Sometimes parents might become confused with establishing parental authority and instilling fear in their children. I don’t for a minute believe that you have to be harsh, angry or abusive to establish parental authority. In fact, I’ve seen parents whose anger is prominent in their discipline, and it’s not effective in the long-run. At the other extreme, I’ve seen parents who consistently deliver discipline to their children in the form of requests or questions (e.g., “Would you please go put your toys away now for Mommy?” instead of “It’s time to clean up now.”). Sometimes parents can over-explain or discuss behavior with young children, when often a clear “No” (e.g., “no hitting) is more effective.

Striking the right balance can be a challenge. It’s not always easy to get that calm, firm tone, but it’s important to keep trying. I encourage you to examine your own tone and comfort with being the authority with your children. What obstacles do you face?

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