l Respect My Kids' Autonomy, But I Refuse To Be A Pushover

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
A young and her mother playing with a light box and letters at home together at the dining table.
Willie B. Thomas/Getty

Because I said so.

I’ve resorted to this phrase plenty of times in my “I’ve had it up to here” parenting moments. I don’t regret the moments I’ve said it, even though the phrase sounds authoritarian. That’s because when I say “because I said so,” I’ve already explained the reasoning behind my rules. I’ve already given my kids choices. I’ve already offered up opportunities for compromise. When I finally bust out “because I said so,” it’s because I’ve been forced to draw a line in the sand. Context is everything.

If I were to whip out “because I said so” at the very first instance of questioning from my kids, that would be different. That would be authoritarian and wouldn’t be doing anything to teach my kids autonomy or independence. Teaching blind obedience is definitely not my goal as a parent, but my kids don’t run the show either.

I am an authoritative parent. Experts define authoritative parenting as “an approach to child-rearing that combines warmth, sensitivity, and the setting of limits.”

That means listening to our kids when they express their wants, concerns, or dissatisfaction with how something is going. But it doesn’t mean they’ll always get what they want. That’s where the “limits” come in. If you catch me barking “because I said so,” at my kid, you are witnessing me setting a limit. We’ve had the discussion, I’ve heard what my kid had to say, and now I am exercising my authority as a parent and deciding where the negotiating stops.

Authoritarian parenting is different. It’s marked by non-negotiable rules and harsh punishments when those rules aren’t perfectly followed. Growing up, I had a good friend with authoritarian parents. She couldn’t ever do anything to her parents’ satisfaction. She was always grounded, always working on a never-ending list of chores that were punishments to the chores she didn’t do right in the first place. She didn’t have much of a childhood. My parents were authoritative. Both sets of parents said “because I said so,” but in very different contexts.

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There are rules my kids must follow, but built into those rules is flexibility about how they’re followed. For example, a few months ago as we were driving home from school, my 13-year-old son Lucas announced that he was going to quit guitar. He’d mentioned it a couple of other times in passing, usually giving me the feeling that he just didn’t feel like going to his guitar lesson that day because he’d rather hang out at home. But he’s been playing guitar for five years and has gotten really good, so my impulse was to tell him that he was absolutely not allowed to quit guitar. No way did his father and I pay for all those lessons just for him to throw it all away.

Instead, I took a few deep breaths. I reminded myself it was right after school and Lucas was hungry and tired and not wanting to go anywhere that day — not to his guitar lesson or anywhere else. I let his announcement hang in the air for a minute. Then I told him that I thought it would be a shame if he quit guitar now, just when he was getting so good. I told him I’d known a lot of people who’d quit piano or guitar just when they were starting to be able to make real music, and in adulthood they very much regretted it.

“Imagine how cool it would be,” I said, “to be on a camping trip with your friends and be able to whip out your guitar and play at the campfire. Or to play in a band. Or to play for your future kids one day.”

But I told him if, after thinking for a few weeks, he really wanted to quit guitar, I would respect his decision. I wouldn’t force him to do something he didn’t want to do. As a violin teacher myself, I’ve personally witnessed how unproductive it is to try to force a kid to commit to something they hate.

But I also added a caveat — and here’s where the authoritative bit comes in. Though I wouldn’t force Lucas to stay with guitar, he would be required to pick something else. Another instrument, a sport, a club, whatever. Something to keep him busy after school and give him goals to work toward. And so far, he’s opted to stick with guitar. (Score!)

Authoritative parenting is not about controlling every detail. It’s about being flexible, caring about your child’s thoughts and feelings, and knowing which battles to fight. Child development experts agree that of the four parenting styles — authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful — that authoritative is the best for producing independent, socially confident, respectful, academically successful kids. Kids with authoritative parents are also “less likely to report depression and anxiety, and less likely to engage in antisocial behavior like delinquency and drug use.”

The authoritarian approach to my son wanting to quit guitar wouldn’t have cared what his opinion was. It would have simply demanded that he continue to learn guitar, whether he liked it or not. It would have assumed that I, as his parent, knew what he needed and wanted better than he did, and would have removed any chance he had of considering the matter for himself and making an informed decision.

Lucas’s impulse to quit guitar wasn’t a “because I said so” situation. It was a time to step back and offer him some space to really think about what he was proposing. I’m relieved and happy that he has chosen to stick with guitar, but the truth is, as an authoritative — but not authoritarian — parent, if he ultimately decides to quit, I wouldn’t stop him. But I would make him pick something else.

Because I’m the mom, and I said so.

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