I was at the mall with a friend and her children while going to get pictures taken of my son. Her five year old daughter was walking backwards, not paying attention to where she was going, and she almost tripped a man. I gently told her she needed to turn around and watch where she was walking and we continued our mall trip.
Later that night my friend called to discuss the incident as she had seen what her daughter was doing, chosen to ignore it, and felt I had overstepped my bounds by saying anything to her. A few days later we talked about this and I shared my hurt over her not saying anything at the time. She shared her discomfort over what to do when that happens (and admitted that it happened a lot, with her, with lots of different people). Her solution up to that point had been to tell her daughter to just do what the person asked and not make a big deal about it, but she was no longer willing to settle for that. I shared what I usually do and we came up with some interesting ideas.
First, you are your child’s advocate. Their protector. Children look to their parents to teach them how to behave in the world and how to interact with other people. When a child responds to a person’s request by asking their parent, “Do I have to?” they are really asking, “Who’s in charge here?” In order for a child to feel safe they need to know that you, their parent, are in charge when it comes to them, and not everyone out there who has something they’d like them to do.
Second, it is important to respect other peoples’ right to make rules regarding their own person, property and families. It is helpful when teaching children your house rules to use phrases like, “In our house we . . . “, “Our rule is to . . . “, etc. This way you can teach about other homes by saying, “Here, the rule is . . . “
It is helpful to them to understand that everyone has different rules, or boundaries, which are important to respect. Some people believe that children cannot differentiate but I completely disagree. My children are able to discern between rules for when Daddy is home and in charge and rules when Mommy is home and in charge. I do not allow tickles, Daddy loves to wrestle and tickle. There are things that are okay during the day that are out of Daddy’s comfort zone and stop when he gets home. Mommy and Daddy are comfortable with different levels of clutter and toys. There is no conflict between us over these differences and because we are comfortable with them so are our children. I’ve heard parents go so far as to require restaurant rules at home because they are afraid of how their children will behave in restaurants. My children have always behaved in restaurants, because we have taught them the restaurant rules and we have never had to require anything like them at home. In our home we are much more relaxed and comfortable about mealtimes. My point is, children can be taught rules for at home and rules for any home or business into which they enter.
Third, you can actively parent your child by protecting them from rules you don’t want enforced on them by others and enforcing those rules with which you agree. Your active participation assures that your child knows you are still in charge (their advocate in this world) and leaves no question of what is expected of them. In fact, when this is the way you interact with your children they learn to trust you to help them be successful in different situations and will ask before doing something they are unsure about.
One thing I remind my children before we go anywhere is that I’m there to help them and they can ask about anything they aren’t sure of. Because my children are not punished for not knowing the rules, they have come to see me as their advocate in helping them remember the rules and being successful in social situations. I also remind my children to “listen to mommy’s/daddy’s words” as the final rule in any list of rules.
Let me give you an example of how you can protect your children from the rules you don’t agree with or the consequences of those rules.
Your family is eating dinner at a friend’s house and they serve the meal with the statement, “Eat all your vegetables and you can have dessert.” You must respect their right to have this house rule, but you determine to what extent it will affect your children.
There are several things you can do to actively parent in this situation. If you agree with the statement you can say aloud to your child, “Just like at home. Eat your veggies and you can have dessert,” or (especially if this isn’t a rule, but you don’t mind enforcing it for this meal) “You can do that. You love (whatever vegetables are being offered for the meal)” If, however, you know your child does not like something offered or the portions are more than they normally handle, or you just don’t like the rule you can say something like, “You don’t have to eat your broccoli, but I know you can eat all your corn. That will be good enough,” or “Just do the best you can and we’ll talk about dessert later.”
This respects the other adults right to make a rule for their family, but protects your right to determine how it affects your child and, ultimately, how they are parented. You can’t expect that no one will ever think there isn’t something you or your child should be doing differently in your relationship. You can however, make sure that your child is confident that, no matter what, you are their advocate and they can look to you to know what expectations will be placed on them in any given situation. Active parenting also clears up any confusion your child might have over who is in charge of them at a given time. One other benefit, more for the parent than the child, is that by actively parenting people will be less likely to think that you are doing “nothing”, and will be less likely to offer unsolicited advice or try to step on your toes and parent your children for you. They may not agree with what you are doing, but they will see that you are doing “something” and that is something most people will respect.