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What is the difference between being authoritarian and authoritative?

MARLENE [a parent]: I have a seven-year-old son who is, as Kevin puts it, a powerful little buzzard. I’ve heard you both say that when a parent is powerful back to a powerful child, it makes him even worse, and that I need to be authoritative with him instead of authoritarian. How do I know when I’m being authoritative or when I’m being authoritarian and too powerful?

KEVIN [Dr. Kevin Leman]: That's a question we often hear from parents of strong-willed children. Here’s the difference between authoritarian and authoritative: Suppose the child says something to you that he shouldn’t—he’s really smart-mouthing you. The authoritarian approach is, "What did you say? Excuse me, young man." Then you go over, grab him by the scruff of his neck, give him a swift swat on his tail, and send him to his room. Or maybe you ground him, take away his Nintendo for six months—anything you can think of that really shows him who's the boss. Now all you have done is show your powerful child you are being powerful back.

MARLENE: Okay, what's the authoritative way to go at it?

KEVIN: There are various ways to be authoritative, but the key to all of them is not to get angry and huff and puff at your child in an authoritarian manner. One of my favorite approaches is to just wait until its time for the child to do something he wants to do or go somewhere he wants to go. Then he says, "Mommy, c’mon, its time for you to drive me here or there." But you say, "I’m sorry, Honey, I’m not driving you anywhere." And your child will say, "Well, what’s wrong?" And then you say, "Honey, I think you know what's wrong." Sooner or later the child usually gets the point. "Oh, you’re mad because of what I said this morning." And you say, "Yes, that's true, I am angry." And then the kid will usually apologize, "Oh, Mommy, I’m sorry." And you reply, "Thank you, I’m thankful you can apologize for what you did." And then comes the real payoff when you have to stick to your guns. Then your kid will say, "Well, will you drive me now?" And that's when you say, “No.” That is being authoritative and using Reality Discipline.

MARLENE: I’m not sure I completely see the difference. Isn’t refusing to drive him somewhere being powerful? It almost sounds as if I would be getting revenge.

KEVIN: It depends on how you deliver the news that you aren’t going to drive him. If you are still full of anger and not in control of your emotions, then you might be simply getting revenge. But revenge should never be your goal. You want to teach and to train him or her. I think the Apostle Paul said it very well in Ephesians 6:4:

And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on scolding and nagging your children, …[but] bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice (TLB).

You have to walk the balance beam. And a key is not getting angry, not being powerful back. That makes all the difference.

RANDY [Randy Carlson]: And yet you stay in healthy authority and you take action. Marlene, one good way to approach it is to know in advance what you'll do if your child misbehaves. When you've already thought it through and you know what action you'll take and you take that action, you probably will be acting authoritatively. But if you just react, especially in anger, and do whatever the moment seems to demand, you’re probably being authoritarian.

KEVIN: And one other tip. If the discipline is not to take him to his Little League game, its a good idea to call his coach and try to win his cooperation. Ask the coach to call the boy later and ask why he wasn’t at the game and be sure the coach probes enough to get the entire story. Then the coach can reinforce to your boy that he was out of line and if he were his dad he would have left him home from the ball game too. Many times parents fail to solicit the help of other significant people in their children's lives—coaches, teachers, assistant principals, or what have you—but these leaders are usually more than willing to help you enforce Reality Discipline because it makes so much sense.

Author: excerpt from Parent Talk by Dr. Kevin Leman and Randy Carlson of Family Life Communications

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