There’s a big difference between a home characterized by fear and one characterized by love.
The goal of parenting in a home characterized by fear is compliance. Things are good when my children do what I say, right away, in a happy way. If they don’t comply, I punish them. This positions my children to either 1) comply, motivated by the fear of punishment, 2) openly rebel, having determined that their freedom is worth the risk of whatever punishment I can enact, or 3) attempt to deceive me, allowing me to think I’m in control while they all the while do what they want. The whole scenario of control is built on the assumption that healthy children are powerless and good parents always make sure the scales of power remain fully tipped away from the children. This way, after 18 or so years of development, the children will either be 1) completely incapable of making decisions and facing consequences, 2) completely incapable of right relationship with authority, or 3) completely incapable of honesty and vulnerability within a relationship. So, if these things are my goal, then the whole compliance/punishment methodology of control is definitely the way to go.
If, on the other hand, you would like to graduate children into adulthood who 1) have learned to make powerful choices and face the resulting consequences, 2) understand how and when to rightly submit to authority, and 3) how to bring vulnerability and honesty into the intimate relationships of their lives. then it is essential we find another goal for parenting besides compliance.
I recommend connection as a far superior goal than compliance.
Things are good when there is a deep and growing connection between me and my children. The fear of punishment works in direct opposition to this goal. I recognize that I have zero ability to control them. Though this may initially sound scary, it’s actually quite empowering, for it means that they have zero capacity to control me. I control me. They control them. They can’t make me mad, sad, or glad. They don’t have the ability to turn me into a controlling, angry, manipulative, resentful, shaming, punishing parent. They can’t steal my love, joy, peace, or patience. They just don’t have that much power over me. I’ve way too much power over myself for that to be a possibility.
I have authority as a parent, but I have determined to learn how to use this authority to empower my children to make choices and face consequences rather than to use it to control them through the fear of punishment. Rather than telling them what to do, I present options. I use my authority to determine the boundaries of those options. There are always consequences to any choice, and this is precisely the lesson I want my kids to experientially learn over and over again throughout their childhood.
My girls both attend school at home. School starts at 8am. I noticed a while back that they were strolling downstairs to have breakfast around 9 and not starting school until 9:30 or 10am. I suspect this has something to do with them staying up way too late on a consistent basis, which they are currently free to do.
“Did you know that school starts at 8am around here?”
“Yeah,” rather sheepishly.
“Have you guys been starting on time or late most days?”
“A little late, I guess.”
“A little late or a lot late?”
“A lot, I guess.”
“You guess or you have?”
“What’s the problem?” I say with a smile on my face and raised eyebrows.
“We’re just so tired in the morning. It’s hard to get going sometimes?”
“Sometimes or a lot of the time?”
“A lot of the time.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“We’re just tired.”
“Wow. That really makes sense. What might you need to change in order to fix that?”
“I don’t know? Maybe–get up earlier?”
“Well let’s see–would getting up earlier make you less tired or more tired?”
“Oh. More tired.”
“So if you’re problem is being tired, just getting up earlier wouldn’t fix that, would it?”
“What would you have to get more of if you’re going to fix the ‘tired’ problem?”
“We’d need to get more sleep.”
“Brilliant. When could you get more sleep? Could you sleep in later than 8am and still begin school by 8am?”
“No. We’d have to go to sleep earlier.” (This accompanied by a slight eye roll.)
“Exactly. Now at this point you girls don’t have a bedtime at all do you?”
“You can stay up as late as you want?”
“Do you like it that way?”
“So you’re not wanting me to control that, right? You’re wanting to stay in control of that, right?”
“Whew! Good, because I can’t control you anyway. I mean, I can limit where you can be at night to your room. I can make sure the lights are off. But I can’t make you sleep. You could, in theory, lay there in the dark staring at the ceiling the entire night and there’s really nothing I could do about that, right?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Go to sleep earlier.”
“That’d be awesome. I would love that. You know how I’ll be able to tell that you’re doing that?”
“You’ll be at the table working on school tomorrow at 8am.”
“So I have a choice for you to make, okay?”
“You are free to either be doing school tomorrow at 8am when school starts, or, you are very welcome to be in bed with the lights off tomorrow night at 8pm. I’ll know which of those you’ve chosen at 8:01am tomorrow. Feel free.”
I’m not mad. They are genuinely free to choose. I have exercised my authority, not to control them, but rather to present options, either of which I’m happy with and both of which will have consequences either good or bad. I haven’t told them what they’re going to do, because I can’t control that. I’ve just told them what I’m going to do, which I can control. I can limit their access to functioning light bulbs and the necessary electricity to run them and to their access to other parts of the house that haven’t been assigned to their stewardship. There is no punishment or threat of punishment, just clear expectations and clear consequences.
I’m teaching my children that they are powerful. Love is something that can only be given by powerful people. Connection is something that can only be built by powerful people. Controlling people doesn’t teach them to be powerful. Giving freedom does. I want to build a loving connection with my kids. I want to graduate them into adulthood knowing full well how powerful they are, that boundaries are real and ever present, and that their choices are powerful in producing the life they want to have.
You can learn WAY more about this approach to parenting from Danny Silk.