“You can't wear those shorts to church,” I said to my teenage daughter. It was a simple statement an efficient act of parenting, combining an observation and a directive in one quick but unmistakable declarative sentence.
Right away, she argued with me. “Everyone wears shorts to church in the summer.”
She has a point. Living in a college town means the attire at our church falls somewhere between “Sunday best” and “vintage vagabond.” Disheveled often is the best some parishioners can do. I try not to pass judgment on the clothing choices people make for weekly worship and instead focus on the fact that the place fills each week with college students who take some time out for God.
Still, my understanding attitude about church attire doesn't extend to my own children. We have standards minimal though they are and the “Daisy Duke” shorts my daughter selected this morning aren't appropriate.
Her argument is pointless, though I love her line of reasoning because it's so easy to unravel. “You're not everyone. Go change.”
“I have nothing else to wear,” she says. She must have forgotten I am the woman who purchases, washes, and irons all of her clothes. I name a few alternatives and heap on the pressure to move quickly so as not to make the rest of us late.
I've read lots of advice about how to get children to cooperate. Experts say it's best to avoid “authoritarian” parenting and instead give children a range of acceptable choices so they can take ownership of decisions and feel empowered, responsible, and proud. In theory, when they feel they're in control of a decision, children will respond willingly.
Avoiding authoritarianism certainly sounds nice, but I don't think it works. This is because my children would argue about what constitutes an acceptable choice and we would be back to square one.
Instead of responding favorably to a choice-driven parental directive such as, “You may choose a snack from either the fruit or vegetable drawer in the refrigerator,” they would say this: “Why can't I have ice cream?” Next thing I know, I'm engaged in a debate about why ice cream is not a healthy choice, why I don't buy better ice cream flavors, and why a fruit-flavored Popsicle should be an alternative.
After about 15 minutes, I would hear, “I'm not hungry anyway,” and that would be the end of it.
Instead of wasting a lot of time pretending I'm not making decisions, I just decide. “Have a banana” is so much more efficient than negotiating about the merits of fruit versus tutti-frutti.
Yet, because children are determined, if not relentless, my authoritarian style meets with the odd argument “odd” here being a word that means constant and predictable.
Despite my consistency (also strongly recommended in the parenting literature) there is hardly a decision I make around my house that isn't met with debate. My children don't really expect me to change my mind, but they're optimists. They figure there's always the chance they'll catch me at a weak moment. What unbending creature would stick to her guns on everything?
Of course, they're right. If they hound, badger, nag, and argue enough, I can't help but wear down like the tread of a new tire, softening against the rough, relentless road.
As with a tire, though, there's also a chance I'll blow up, which happens every so often when one child too many has heard my final answer yet submitted an appeal.
When this happens, I re-establish my parental primacy, and my vocabulary reacquaints itself with that one little word that gives parents the power to lead: no.
Television on a sunny summer afternoon? No.
Popcorn before dinner? No.
Rap on my car radio? No.
“Daisy Duke” shorts to church on Sunday? No, no, a thousand times no.
My answers are nonnegotiable, my tone of voice convincing, my resolve apparent. It works for any issue that needs resolution, from choosing whose turn it is to “ride shotgun” in the van to deciding which child will empty the dishwasher, which one will reload it, and who will escape kitchen duty for no good reason.
When it's clear I'm back on track and their persistent arguments are pointless, something strange and wonderful revisits my home: order. I speaketh, and it is done.
Not to mention, knowing I mean business on minor matters sends a strong and useful message about the big ones.
I'm sure my children would like to make more decisions about what they eat and wear and do with their leisure time, but I'm not worried that my authoritarian parenting style will rob them of an ability to make choices. I'm not eager to rear a bunch of indecisive, dependent, opinionless people, and anyway, they get plenty of chances to commandeer their destinies.
Then again, because they're growing up in a house where their parents make a fair number of rules and expect compliance, I hope our influence wears off on them.
Long after they free themselves from my authoritarian clutches, when at last they're the ones choosing the snacks and determining their schedules and outfitting themselves each day, I have high hopes that their lost arguments will result in good decisions.
Maybe they'll occasionally choose to eat carrot sticks, after which they'll put themselves to bed before midnight and, the next day, wear something respectful if the occasion calls for it.
You can't argue; that would be good.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)