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Grounding Your Power as a Parent in Freedom Instead of Fear

I had the recent joy of coaching two fathers separately on their relationship with their young sons.

Both were dealing with frustration, specifically about kids not listening. I think we can all relate.

  • Dad #1 had two boys, ages 4 and 6, who he’d have to repeatedly remind to stop running around the halls of their second-story apartment. The neighbor down below had already texted him complaining of the noise.
  • Dad #2 had an 8-year-old son who was not making his bed, even after repeated reminders.

Both shared similar circumstances in that each was dealing with sons who were not doing what they were told. In both cases, each father felt frustrated, and in that frustration, each dad would yell, remind the kids of the rules, and force compliance.

Also, both dad’s questioned their response and had doubts/shame in how they handled the situation. They both acknowledged that their yelling and reinforcement measures were not  leading to any lasting change in behavior in their kids, and both feared that their actions would eventually cause rifts in their relationships with their sons, perhaps significantly in the future.

Similarly, both dads felt powerless underneath the frustration. Both saw their children’s behavior as a direct result of their parenting.

Furthermore, they both had similar thoughts of, “I shouldn’t have to remind them over and over to stop running,” or, “He should know by now to make his bed.”

If we were to run a general model on these two dads, it’d look something like this:

  • Circumstance: My son is not doing the behavior that I asked him to do.
  • Thought: They should be listening to me.
  • Feeling: Frustrated
  • Action: I yell. I force compliance. I reinforce beliefs about how boys should behave. I doubt my parenting skills. I think about how I am hurting my son and our relationship. I feel ashamed. I hand over my emotional responsibility to my kids, meaning I make my thoughts about my parenting and my ability to feel confident as a parent based on their behavior. I don’t have a dialogue with my son.

Arguably, these actions are not ever going to lead to the desired result of growing in trust in the father-son bond and fostering virtue in their sons.

So what’s the solution? Let’s take a look at where these dads were holding some beliefs that were understandable, while at the same time, out of integrity with God’s design and the authority He has given to us as parents.

Both of these men desired to have a loving relationship with their kids, and both recognized that their role as a father entailed guiding their sons to virtuous behaviors.

But that was not going to happen from a model of frustration. So, how did we move on from frustration?

First, we had to acknowledge the true source of their frustration. Frustration is an emotion that is a nuance of anger. It’s typically tied to a circumstance where things are not going as the individual perceives they should. The frustration is often rooted in a resistance to a circumstance that the individual is powerless, or believes themselves powerless, to change (i.e. kids behavior or free-will choices). We often see frustration as a layered emotion on top of the emotion of powerlessness.

People don’t enjoy powerlessness, and I’d argue that men certainly don’t enjoy it. The frustration becomes the fuel to actions that help them to feel powerful again (yelling, coercion, forcing compliance). However, in these cases, the frustration and resulting actions only gives the perception of power. In both stories mentioned here, the power has been placed on the shoulders of the 4, 6, and 8-year-old sons. When they choose to change their behaviors, then the dads had permission to feel like good dads. The kids have the power to make dad feel powerful.

But these men never felt like good dads, even when the bed got made and the running stopped (temporarily).

So back to the source of their frustration. I’d argue that the most painful underlying belief that they had was something like:

I have the ability to change my son’s behavior, and it’s my job to do so.

Here’s the problem with that belief.

First, it’s not true. It’s a lie. We can force compliance (for a time) but that is not changing behavior. Changes in behavior comes from a free-will choice. While the will in young boys is in the beginning of its formation, it is still there. You cannot hold the belief that you can change someone’s behavior and the belief that each person has free-will. These beliefs are opposite, and believing opposing views at the same time will cause confusion and frustration. Every person, regardless of age, always has a choice. For fathers to parent contrary to the truth that their kids have a free-will choice would be a violation of their dignity being made in the image and likeness of God – ultimately to love and be loved.

Should we be surprised when our sons rebel when we cast aside their freedom? In some ways, we ought to applaud.

Second, this belief rests on the premise that external actions are indicative of maturation or internal virtue. But if there is no freedom, there is no virtue. If there is compliance, but from a place of “I have to” versus “I choose to,” then as soon as the reinforcing authority is gone, the behavior will revert back.

Third, there is a misunderstanding of the role of the father. Winning is incorrectly perceived as compliance in their son to certain behaviors, rather than growing in understanding of how to properly use one’s freedom. Not that behavior change isn’t one of the fruits of virtue, but again, all must be rooted in free choice. When opportunities come to remind kids not to run in the house or that it’s time to make their bed with an understanding that they get to choose – and that their choice has nothing to do with you as a father – then we can start to parent without frustration. Their choices, good and bad, become exercises in using their freedom. Sometimes they make good choices, and sometimes they don’t, but they always get to experience the consequences.

And this is where we can root our power and authority as parents in something that is true – helping our kids experience the fruits of their choices (not their actions, but their choices).

I like to tell my daughter, “You can choose whether or not to eat the food we put in front of you, but you can’t choose whether or not you will be hungry later.” I’ve already gone down the path of believing I can force her to eat – it didn’t turn out well.

Good thing God has given us an ordered world with ordered natural consequences!

And, where there are not clear natural consequences (i.e. I can walk away from an unmade bed and experience no natural consequence in my life), parents have the authority to dictate the consequences.

  • “Hey, if you choose not to make your bed, that is fine, but I want you to know that you will not be able to play until you do. No video games, no going outside, and no toys. What do you want to do?”
  • “Listen, you guys can run around the house if you choose, but if you do, I’m going to separate you both for 3 minutes. If it keeps happening, we are going to go downstairs and apologize to our neighbor.”

(I offer these as suggestions to jump-start your thinking, so use with discernment.)

The amazing thing about having the authority to make these rules is that you have the authority to change them! You can test them out for a time and see if they work. All the while you are honoring the freedom of your kids and reinforcing the reality that it is their choice that is causing the consequences. At the same time, you are honoring yourself as a parent who is learning, too,  and being schooled in what Marie Montessori called “the apostolate of the child.”

That humble place of being a parent who recognizes their poverty becomes a fertile seedbed for prayer and peaceful fatherly guidance from God the Father.

Some final thoughts to avoid frustration in parenting:

  • Parents, choose to honor your kids’ freedom.
  • Parents, choose to honor your own unfinished journey of maturation as a parent and be merciful towards yourself.
  • Parents, choose to honor your role to guide choices in kids and help them reason well, rather than instill behaviors. The latter is a fruit of the former.