Raising kids is hard work, but it’s 10 times harder if they haven’t learned to mind you—to do what you ask.
As a parent, you have a right to be respected and obeyed. Four Es—Expect, Explain, Enable, and Enforce – can help to teach kids to respect your authority and understand why obedience to mum and dad is a virtue, as well as something that’s a big help to you and makes the home a happier place for everybody.
A half-century of research supports the effectiveness of “authoritative parenting”. This childrearing style:
- values both obedience to adult requirements and independence in children
- explains reasons behind rules and encourages give and take
- enforces standards firmly but doesn’t regard self as infallible
- listens to the child but does not base decisions solely on the desires of the child.
At all developmental levels, authoritative parents are the most successful at raising confident, competent, and socially responsible children. A 15-year-old girl captured the essence of this approach when she described her authoritative parents as “firm but democratic”.
The Four Es—Expect, Explain, Enable, and Enforce—are a big part of authoritative parenting and crucial for teaching the virtue of obedience.
The first two Es: Expect and Explain
The first two Es go together. Set clear, specific behavioural expectations and give at least a brief reason: “Don’t pull kitty’s tail—hurts kitty!” “Can’t play with the knife—hurts baby!”
Even if children with limited language don’t completely understand all the words you’re saying, they can pick up a lot from your tone, and chances are they’ll get the general idea: when there’s a rule, there’s a reason.
Reasons teach kids that your rules aren’t arbitrary but based on love—on what’s good for them and good for others. Understanding that helps to motivate compliance. Studies find that teens are more likely to respect and follow family rules when they see them as based on parents’ concern for their welfare. Giving reasons for rules also helps to develop conscience: children’s ability to give themselves a reason for doing the right thing.
Here are some other examples of Expect and Explain:
- “Say ‘please’ when you want something – it’s good manners and makes me happy”.
- “Please look at me when I’m talking to you – so I know you’re listening”.
- “Pick up your toys – so nobody will trip on them”.
- “Call or text me if you’re going to be late – so I won’t worry”.
The “obedience talk”
If you’re having trouble establishing your authority and getting your kids to obey, it may be partly because they’ve never gotten a basic idea into their heads: kids are supposed to obey their parents, just as they obey their teachers in school. If you’ve never explained that, I encourage you to have the “obedience talk.” Sit down and in a calm, loving, but serious way, help them understand the following:
- “Mothers and fathers have the job of being in charge of the family. Kids have the job of obeying their parents—doing what we ask you to do. That makes our home a happier place for everybody.
- It’s the same in school: kids have to do what the teacher says. That helps the classroom be a place where you can learn and get things done.
- So when we ask you to do something—come to dinner, pick up your toys, get ready for bed—you have to obey. You can’t say, ‘No.’ That’s not allowed.
- If you forget, we’ll give you one reminder: ‘Remember our talk about obedience.’ If you continue to disobey, then there will have to be a consequence, like a time-out.
- And we’d like you to obey cheerfully, without complaining. Complaining makes everybody grumpy. Obeying cheerfully makes us happy.
- Okay, can you tell me what I said? (Patiently review whatever needs repeating.)”
The big idea we want to get across is that obedience is a virtue. Children should be encouraged to obey not primarily out of fear—that’s a low-level motive—but out of love, in order to help their parents and the whole family. In this sense, obedience is a first step in learning to cooperate; to respond to the needs of others.
The third E: Enable
The next E is enable — finding ways to make it easier for kids to do what we’re asking them to do. We may have to demonstrate and coach the behaviour we want, just the way we would coach them if we were teaching a physical skill. For example:
- “Let me show you how to ask nicely for something instead of grabbing it.”
- “Here’s how to ask nicely for a turn…”
- “Here’s how to show that you understand my feelings: ‘Mum, I hear you saying…’”
- “Here’s how to show you’re sorry for something you did: ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’”
- We can also ask for a “re-do”:
- “How about a re-do on that… Could you please say that more respectfully?”
- “Can you use kinder words to say that to your sister?”
Asking for a “re-do” or “do-over” expresses confidence that your child can do the desired action. Then praise and thank them when they do.
My wife and I have 15 grandchildren. Our youngest granddaughter Mira, who just turned two and can be very strong-willed, had left her Bristle Blocks strewn across the floor after she finished playing with them.
Kneeling down next to her, I said to my wife, “Bella, I bet Mira knows how to put these toys away,” and I started putting some in the plastic tub where they go. Mira quickly joined in. As she did, I repeatedly said, “Good job!” As she gets a little older, we’ll encourage her to show she can do it “all by yourself.”
Enabling can also take the form of finding the approach that elicits the desired behaviour instead of provoking resistance. When Mira wants something, telling her to “Say please” sometimes triggers her two-year-old will, and she stubbornly refuses. But if instead of telling, we ask, “What should you say?” she responds, “Please.”
When our younger son was five, we discovered another strategy that “enabled” obedience with him. We’d been having trouble when we picked him up at the end of a play date at a friend’s house; he’d complain and protest that he didn’t want to leave. So we made a plan: in the future, we’d give him a reminder, “Matthew, this is a chance to obey.” That helped.
The fourth E: Enforce
The fourth E is to enforce your expectations. If you don’t do this when it’s needed, obedience training will break down. So, what should you do when kids don’t do what you ask?
The main thing is to hold them accountable to your expectation so they’ll take it seriously both then and in the future. But there are different ways to achieve that objective; you have to decide what best fits the situation. And if one approach doesn’t work, try another.
- Ask for a re-do: “Let’s try that again. Okay… it’s time to get ready for bed.”
- Ask a question that invokes a relevant rule: “What’s the rule about toys when you’re finished playing with them?”
- Offer a choice when appropriate. With a two-year-old who doesn’t want to hold your hand while walking along the road, you could say: “I don’t want you to get hit by a car. Do you want to hold my hand, or shall I carry you?”
- Appeal to a relevant virtue: “How can you show your obedience / cooperation / good manners?”
- Promote perspective-taking: “What can you do to make me happy?”
- Calmly invoke the consequences of not obeying: “What will happen if you don’t obey?” Have a pre-established consequence for disobedience after one reminder, such as loss of a privilege or time-out.
- Have a pre-established positive incentive: “When chores are done, you can go outside, watch TV, or play your games. Not before.” A Canadian family I know, with 10 kids, had this Saturday morning rule (see 10Kids.com).
Revisit the rule if you think it might need revising. Remember, authoritative parents don’t consider themselves infallible and they give their kids voice in family life. The Canadian family with 10 children would have a sit-down discussion when the kids wanted to make a change in the Saturday chores routine.
Kids with extreme behaviour problems
A highly structured behaviour plan, using the Four Es, can help even with very difficult children.
Some years ago, a learning centre in Oregon attracted attention for its success in teaching previously uncontrollable children to obey their parents. These children typically refused to obey even the most reasonable requests. One boy, as part of tantrums, would sometimes spread his excrement all over the living room walls. His single mother had no idea how to deal with him.
The learning centre taught this mother to require her son to obey her requests by the count of 15. She explained the new system to him: if he didn’t obey by then, he would get a five-minute time-out in the bathroom (more effective than their bedroom, which is often an entertainment centre). If he refused to take the time-out, a valued privilege such as watching TV would be taken away for the rest of the day. If he still refused, further privileges would be taken away.
But if he did obey by the count of 15, he would earn a point. When he had 10 points, he would get a small reward such as dessert after dinner (which the mother had given him before; only now he had to earn it).
After only a few weeks of consistently following this regimen, the mother reported that her son was obeying her most of the time, and no longer having tantrums. As children become accustomed to respecting and obeying you, a structured point system should become less necessary. Your praise and gratitude may be enough.
Thomas Lickona (thomaslickona.com) is the author, most recently, of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain (Penguin, 2018). This article is reprinted from his May 18 Psychology Today blog with the author’s permission.