Taking Back Power from the “Alpha Kid”

Studies show that in modern homes, children increasingly rule the roost – often in deceptively harmless ways. Here’s what to look for and how you can rein them in.

My local hardware store was the battleground for a dad vs. son power struggle recently. I was shopping for sign supplies when I witnessed it: Young son fixated on something in the tools aisle and, after a few moments, dad wanted to move on.

“Please? Please? Please can we go find a plunger?” begged dad. Uh oh. I winced, grabbed one last marker and headed to the checkout.

It’s a familiar scene. No parent likes shopping trip tears … even worse, the battle of wills. Dad wanted to buy a plunger and fix the toilet; son wanted to count red-handled monkey wrenches.

From the way the dad was negotiating the errand, I wondered who was in charge.

The modern family dynamic places more power in kids’ hands than ever, says a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research report. It contends the combination of two-parent working households and smaller-sized families has empowered children to take charge. And parents let them.

This “alpha kid” paradigm appears in daily scenarios, many seemingly benign. After all, isn’t it wonderful that we hear and respect our children?

However, not just for the sake of family harmony but also to grow resilient, balanced kids who become well-behaved adults, experts say parents may want to reorder the family hierarchy and take back a healthy slice of control.

Over the past several decades, the philosophies of parenting gurus Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton blended with 1960s-era social equality to produce parents who relinquish control in their families, says licensed social worker and family therapist Jerome A. Price, co-director of Michigan Family Institute in Southfield.

Unfortunately, underparenting produces future adults who aren’t accountable for their actions.

“I was one of the first in my field to suggest that young people are being corrupted by power because there is too much available to them,” Price says. “They should have decision-making power, but where it is suitable for their age and level of maturity.”

Let’s look at some common situations where kids come out on top. Many seem pretty harmless, but are they?

1. It’s home, not a Coney Island.

Family mealtime is challenging enough without a picky eater turning us into short-order cooks.

“I do make separate meals for him,” admits LaRetha Wynn, 46, grandmother to Isaiah Tolbert, 5, of Detroit. “I want him to have nutritional, balanced meals every day, and I can’t rely on fast food.” Chicken (fried only), fish (only if it looks like chicken), French fries (no ridges), oatmeal and certain types of fruits are all Isaiah will eat.

Supporting a healthy family can mean making five different meals – but only if you let it happen, says Liz Kennard, registered dietitian and healthy lifestyle coach with Beaumont Health in Dearborn.

“Have kids play a critical role in shopping and selecting foods from the produce section,” she suggests. “Then do some research on interesting preparation methods. If they experience a food with all their senses, they are more likely to try it.”

Start small. Be persistent. “It takes at least 15 encounters for a child to try a new food,” she adds.

2. Kindergartner as family spokesperson.

Kids should have an appropriate role. But precluding parents? Maybe there’s no harm having a child’s greeting on voicemail. But to be the sole family rep on a sibling’s birth announcement might be a step too far, says Catherine Novak, a French language teacher at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor.

“In the old days, the names of siblings were not mentioned. Later, parents gave their first child the privilege to introduce their brother or sister. Now you find announcements where the parents are barely mentioned,” she says. “Society encourages parents to involve their kids in everything, and not doing it could even be considered bad parenting.”

When it comes to those formal mailed-out milestones, she says, “I would say let big bro announce the birth of little bro, but at least mention the names of the parents.”

3. Mom, mom, mom, MOMMM

Children are adept at waiting until a parent is on the phone before suddenly needing an answer.

“They instantly have to ask a million questions and won’t leave us alone,” says 31-year-old St. Clair Shores mom Amanda Backers, describing furtive attempts at conversation with her husband when the kids, ages 8 and 4, are around. “We listen at first, and then tell them they have to wait until we are done, unless it’s super important.”

Lack of impulse control feeds the interruptions, says Barry Jay, Ph.D., of the Center for Integrative Psychology in West Bloomfield. Price agrees: “They have a right to be heard, but not all the time.” Use a tone that means business. Tell kids to sit tight until the grown-ups are finished. “Then, listen to him seriously when that time comes.”

4. Time management is a learned skill.

We want our kids to learn how to make time for what’s important. Sometimes, modeling works. Other times, parents need to take an active role to help kids prioritize. That may mean saying “no.”

What if it’s a choice between goofing around with friends and getting extra help with a subject at school? Novak was surprised when a parent said, “I will see if you can fit in Johnny’s schedule.”

The teacher wondered whose schedule it was. “Your child is struggling, and you tell me that he is too busy to meet with me?” As with families who dedicate every weekend and vacation to kids’ sports/forensics/robotics schedules, lack of balance and limits can foster a sense of entitlement.

“Kids can go anywhere and do anything, and parents want to look perfect,” Price explains. Honesty helps flip that script. “Parents can say, ‘I can’t give you any money because it’s been a tight week.’ And kids should be asking permission instead of telling parents what they are going to do.”

5. The sass. Oh, the sass.

At first, kids may just test the limits, but eventually, disrespectful speak can become a communication style that creeps beyond the home.

Backers has witnessed eye rolling and “Duh, mom!” from customers, particularly tweens, from behind the espresso machine at the Roseville coffee shop where she works. “The mom didn’t say anything to her child, but she did apologize to the staff,” she says.

“It is embarrassing to have your child act in public that way,” notes Jay, who suggests publicly apologizing to staff, telling your child that’s not the way to talk to someone, warning her you’ll be talking about it in the car – and following through.

“Parenting the teen is a whole different set of skills,” he says. “The goal here is to teach independence and how to learn to deal with emotions and frustrations.”

6. The ask/don’t tell scenario.

Every shopping trip has the potential to become the notorious hardware store scene. While it needn’t be this way, parents do have an illusion there is a right thing to do under these circumstances, says Price. If you’ve established a hierarchical relationship, the “dad voice” might be enough. If not, don’t battle; just go do what you need to do. Child will follow.

“If you give the same direction twice, it’s begging,” Price says. “Parents think the battle is fought around the incident as opposed to the overall authority. Teaching happens elsewhere, not when the battle is waged.”

7. You can’t make me!

When a kid’s physical presence matches an inflated sense of psychological power, parents wonder how they’ll ever enforce rules like bedtimes and curfew. I recall moving to the back of the minivan when a friend’s teen boy refused to get in until he could sit shotgun. After all, mom couldn’t leave him in the museum parking lot. “You can’t make me!” he said. She proved him right.

But parents have a wealth of tools at their disposal, says Price – in particular, they can control incentives.

“No technology until schoolwork is done, shut off WiFi and data, which you can do on a daily basis. Restrict access to money, use of cars, the ability to drive or have a license,” he says, adding that, when allowed, kids can get addicted to power, which suppresses their conscience, making them more powerful.

Parents who establish a hierarchy won’t ever need to impose emotional punishment. But those who don’t establish a sense of power won’t discipline until they are angry and can’t be kind anymore, Price explains.

“If a parent is willing to do something serious and the kid knows this early on, the parent doesn’t have to do anything serious. You don’t have to be forceful if you are a powerful and loving parent,” Price says.

Parenting mindfulness is a mantra for 39-year-old mom of two, Erin Rawlings of Rochester.

“I give them a safe space to figure things out, but not without boundaries. I figure out their needs and work from there,” Rawlings says, noting she’s never quick to judge the power struggles she overhears.

“Parents may get confused by wanting a connection and view their role through the lens of friendship. You model what respect looks like, but that doesn’t mean you are a walking mat,” she says.

– Claire Charlton is mom to two grown sons. She lives in Berkley.

Art by Fan Wu

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June 2017
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