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Dictator, Boss, Coach, Consultant: Which Parent Are You?

Being a parent is hard, challenging work. 

Unfortunately, children don’t come with an “owner’s manual.” It can be really difficult to know how to raise them well. The most important aspect of parenting is to pray about our parenting, and ask the Lord to direct us as we guide and raise our children (“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’" – Is. 40:31). There are also helpful principles and skills that can inform our parenting. 

One principle that is particularly helpful in raising our children is we don’t want to focus mainly on control, which is not really the healthiest way to parent. Instead, we want to focus more on guiding them and teaching them how to make wise choices for themselves. That way, they will learn the important skills of how to think and how to exert self-control, and they will be able to make wise decisions when they are out on their own and out of our influence or our home. In short, they can grow up to be well-functioning adults.

I believe it helps to think of parenting as moving through various roles that build on the previous ones. There is some fluidity with these roles in that one flows into the next one, with some back and forth, as opposed to a rigid boundary or timeline. Furthermore, we want to adjust these roles to the unique characteristics of each child. In moving through these successive parenting roles, we will help our children grow up to be mature, well-functioning adults.

The first parenting role is that of dictator. This role occurs roughly from the child’s birth through their toddler years. In this role, the parent really does control everything. The goals are to protect and nurture the child so that they feel loved and safe, can emotionally attach to parents and to others, and can begin to develop a healthy sense of self.

The next parenting role is that of boss. This role occurs roughly in the child’s preschool years through early elementary. In this role, the parent is still very much in charge. However, the parent begins to set parameters and to give the child some tasks or responsibility with some freedom of choice. I have an elementary school teacher friend who calls this “the illusion of choice.” For example, the parent might ask the child, “For breakfast, do you want cereal or toast?” “Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your green shirt today?” “Would you like to walk up the stairs to bed or have me carry you up to bed?” In setting these parameters and offering some freedom of choice within them, the child can begin to experience how to make decisions while having the context safely monitored.

When there is misbehavior and discipline is required, the child can experience the logical consequences of their decision, which is an effective learning tool. For example, the parent can tell the child, “If you choose to throw your cereal bowl on the floor, you won’t be able to have any cereal.” “If you choose to hit your brother with your toy, you will lose your toy.” “If you don’t get your schoolwork done, unfortunately you won’t be able to play games on the computer.” The child can begin to make the connection between their decision and what kind of outcome they experience.

The next parenting role is that of coach. I believe parents will spend the majority of their time in this role, gradually giving the child more and more responsibility and freedom as this role occurs roughly during elementary through high school and early college. In this role, the parents are still the authority, but they focus on teaching, training and guiding the child while gradually offering more freedom. The parents offer wisdom, direction and guidance, exploring and discussing with the child the various potential outcomes that could result from different decisions the child could make in a given situation. As long as the child’s decision is not dangerous or extremely detrimental, the parents then step back and let the child “make the play.” Afterwards, the parents and child discuss together how it went and what can be learned from the experience. The child can learn how to make a better choice next time, or they can celebrate a well-considered decision.

In this stage, it is important for the parents to let the child experience the outcomes of their decisions, both good and not so good, even though doing so can be difficult for the parents. Parents hate to see their children “fail.” However, logical consequences can be an effective teacher.

For example, if the child forgets their homework and calls the parents to have them bring it to them at school, the parents can take the homework to the child so that they are not penalized. Afterwards, the parents and child can talk about what to do to prevent that situation from happening again, such as packing the child’s backpack the night before and making sure their homework is done and ready to go. The parents also will want to discuss how they will not bring the homework should that situation happen again, as the child is now ready and responsible. Then the parents step back and let the child “make the play.” Should the child again forget their homework, the parents let the child experience the outcome, as they have already discussed with the child. Logical consequences are effective. The child likely will not forget their homework again any time soon.

The last parenting role is that of consultant. This role occurs in the college years, but definitely by the time the children move out of the home and/or get married. Parents serve as a consultant in that they only offer their opinions or ideas when asked. At this point, parents still may have wisdom to offer, but they only do so at the adult child’s request. In this way, the parents let the child function as the adult they now are. Adult children tend to really appreciate that.

Being a parent is hard work, with a lot of unknowns. Hopefully, these roles can offer a guiding framework as we serve to wisely and prayerfully parent our children, guiding and assisting them to develop into mature, well-functioning adults who are able to make wise decisions for themselves.