Kathy Buckworth on the benefits of autocratic parenting

By Kathy Buckworth on April 02, 2013
When my son Alex was fi ve years old, he took part in a skating show. In the same show was a friend of his, a little guy with a knack for running his parents around in circles. Minutes before the kids were supposed to take their Teletubby-outfi tted selves onto the ice to perform, this mom asked, ever so politely: “Jimmy*, would you like to put on your mittens now?” Of course Jimmy said, “No.” To which Mom replied, “Well, you have to because the show is about to start.” His reply? Wait for it . . . : “No.”

You can imagine how this ended. She got angry, and he started crying. She said, “If you don’t stop crying and put these mittens on, we’re not going to McDonald’s afterwards.”

He kept crying, didn’t put the mittens on, and missed the show. And what did his mom and dad do? They took him to McDonald’s.

This is Democratic Parenting at its very worst – a situation in which a child is given an inappropriate amount of power. Why on earth did this mother ask her son to do something he had no choice but to do? It’s not like she was about to accept anything but yes. Jimmy was clearly the boss of her and the result, while not catastrophic (how much harm can a Happy Meal do, anyway?), was still a strong indication of how he would rule himself as a child and, more frighteningly, as a teen and as an adult.

Now let’s look at the same scenario as it might have been handled by an Autocratic Parent (a.k.a. a boss).

Mom: Jimmy, put your mittens on. Now.
Jimmy: I don’t want to.
Mom: Put them on.
Jimmy: Why? Mom: Because I said so.
Jimmy: But I don’t want to.
Mom: That would be entirely relevant had I asked if you wanted to. I don’t want to make dinner either, but if you don’t put those mittens on right now, I will do it for you, and then neither of us will be happy.
Jimmy: They’re on!

The Autocratic Parent clearly has the upper hand. Why? My theory is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, but I believe it’s because the expectations were clearly laid out and the boundaries were established and adhered to. There was no compromise in a situation that didn’t call for compromise. Mittens were needed. Enough said.

Could it be, then, that the Democratic Parenting ideal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Before rushing to judgment, I decided to search for a clear, concise defi nition to wrap my head around. I came up empty. It seems as if proponents of this child-rearing method are fi nding it diffi cult to entirely agree on the basic tenets (never a good sign). So, left to my own devices, I decided to break the phrase down into its two parts to see if it makes any sense. From the Oxford Dictionary (the not-so-subtle boldface emphasis is mine): democratic (adj): relating to or supporting democracy or its principles: democratic countries, democratic government; favouring or characterized by social equality; egalitarian: cycling is a very democratic activity that can be enjoyed by anyone. parenting: from the source word parent (n): a person’s father or mother; a forefather or ancestor; an animal or plant from which new ones are derived; a source or origin of a smaller or less important part; an organization or company which owns or controls a number of subsidiaries. (verb): be or act as a mother or father to (someone).

Is it just me or is there a total disconnect here? Maybe even an oxymoronic taint to the phrase? On the one hand you’ve got “social equality.” On the other you’ve got “a source or origin of a smaller or less important part.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me! Pay attention now: Democratic Parenting should be an oxymoron in your house. If it’s not, you’re in trouble.

One of the great benefits of Autocratic Parenting is a greatly diminished amount of “talking time.” Parenting can be a huge time suck, even more so when you allow young children to have an equal say or “voice” in every decision you make.

But that’s not the only way Democratic Parenting causes extra and unnecessary work. It can also lead to delusions of grandeur for the children (for instance, thinking they can say “no” when told to clear the table – um, was a question even asked there?). In fact, I would submit that instead of moving us forward, the Democratic Parenting movement has set us back several steps.

*Name changed to protect the annoying.

Excerpted from I Am So the Boss of You: An 8-Step Guide to Giving Your Family the “Business” (Random House), on bookstore shelves March 26 and recently optioned by Warner Brothers for television.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

By Kathy Buckworth| April 02, 2013

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