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Yer Not the Boss of Me!

March 3, 2020
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Years ago, I cooked up a Game Night for families at the church I was serving. “Bring your kids! We’ll have a great time!” We had a great turnout and we had lots of fun. But there was this one little 3 yr-old guy who made it hard to have as much fun as I wanted to. He was terrorizing the place as only a 3 yr-old boy can. His mom and dad were friends of mine, and great people. But Little Napoleon was a bit of a spoiled brat.

I stepped in front of him on one of his runs down the hallway and said, “Hey there little man, stop running in the hallway.” He stomped his little foot and said in the tone of a defiant terrorist, “YER NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”

He was right, of course. I wasn’t his boss. His mommy and daddy were the bosses. The problem was they were having tons of fun in another room with a bunch of other mommies and daddies and had no idea what was going on in the hallway.

My first impulse was to squash Little Napoleon like a bug. Fortunately, my more mature self took command of my initial impulse, and instead, I took him by the back of his collar and said, “Let’s go see your boss.” He squirmed and hollered, but I was able to prevail, and we went to see his dad.

I’ve often reflected on this encounter in the hallway of the church building back in the day. That I can’t remember Little Napoleon’s actual name will tell you the impact of the event wasn’t profoundly personal, but since I remember the event 20-some years later that means it landed in my memory banks, in a file drawer that’s easy to open.

I think the reason it still comes to mind is that there’s a whole lot of me in Little Napoleon. Sadly, there are still many times when I figuratively stomp my foot and say, “Yer not the boss of me!” I rarely say it out loud, but if you could hear my inner dialogue, you’d hear it a lot. I don’t like being told what to do or not do. I’ve not completely grown out of this stage. And I’m on Medicare! You’d think by now I’d have figured this thing out.

I can tell you with complete confidence that my residual problems with authority have little to do with my parents parenting style. They weren’t permissive and soft on punishment. They were about as far from that parental profile as you can get. Permissiveness was of the devil and punishment had to hurt. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” I wasn’t spoiled. Please don’t get the idea that they were mean and abusive. They were not! They were loving parents who sometimes tended toward authoritarian in their style, but were more often authoritative. (Maybe some day I’ll write about styles of parenting and flesh these two styles, and two more, out. Not today.) Bottom line: they did the best they knew to do.

But my siblings and I knew that defiance never ended well. Well, my brothers and I knew it. My sister was pretty much perfect, so she never got the consequences of defiance the way we guys did… This is probably not true, but it seemed true as we grew up. The point I’m making here is that I grew up knowing that defiance was never a good option. The consequences were always painful. So my current tendencies to defy authority don’t come from a permissive upbringing. And thanks for letting me process this.

With apologies to Calvinists, I’m not one, so I’m not on board with total depravity. And I don’t subscribe to Original Sin theology. But I believe that we’re born with a sin-nature that is constantly drawing us toward rebellion. It all started with Adam and Eve, but if they hadn’t done it, it would surely have been someone and Steve. It’s perhaps straining at gnats, but although Adam and Eve committed the original sin, I think what I inherited from them these many generations later was a proclivity to sin, a sin-nature, not an original sin that makes me totally depraved. So that’s your dose of my theological perspective for today. My First Parents aren’t to blame for my rebellion. I am. My rebellion is my responsibility.

Anybody else sometimes struggle with this? The answer to that is yes. Everybody does. There’s a strong chance that if you’re a parent, you struggle to know what to do about a child who pushes your buttons with defiance and rebellion. You’re who I’m writing this for.

Knowing how to discipline a strong-willed, defiant kid is one of the most important skills a parent can learn. Not knowing how to do this is one of the things that will spin chaos and conflict into a family like nothing else can. So it’s got to go to the top of the “things to learn” list.

To quote Barney Fife, “Nip it in the bud! Nip it, nip it, nip it!” In other words, start addressing it early. The longer you wait to do something with it, the harder it will be, and the more damage the defiance and rebellion will do to you and your family. It’s hard, no matter when you do this, but it’s easier to do this with a 2 year old than a 12 year old. So address it early.

But when I say early, I have to account for some developmental dynamics. Children begin to intuitively understand the concept of defiance pretty early on, well before they’re 2. They quickly learn the difference between what they want and what you want. Before they even have language, they learn how to express their displeasure with you and what you want when it’s not what they want. This will usually seem like defiance, but it may actually be part of the child’s learning where boundaries are, where the lines of power are in the relationship, and whose got it.

There are other factors, too, when a child is this young. Things like hunger, fatigue, frustration. When a little one is hungry, tired, frustrated, they will probably be oppositional. So when you find yourself with an oppositional little one, the first thing is to figure out what they need, I wish I could give you a sure-fire way to figure this out, but I don’t have one. Sorry. You have to call on your intuition and experience with them for this. It’s made more difficult because every kid is a little different. If you’ve got more than one kid, you’re likely to have two sets or more of needs to factor in. This is one huge reason you need the guidance of Our Perfect Parent, God, to do this thing well. So ask Him for wisdom and trust the truth of James 1:5. He wants to make you wise.

One of the most important things about dealing with an oppositional child (When I use the term “oppositional,” I’m not talking about a clinical condition called “oppositional disorder.” I’m just talking about a child’s resistance and opposition to your directives.), or even just a normal kid who’s having a bad moment, is generally this: YOUR CHILD’S BEHAVIOR WHEN THEY’RE OPPOSITIONAL AND DEFIANT IS THEIR DEFAULT LANGUAGE FOR TELLING YOU THEY HAVE A NEED THEY FEEL IS UNMET.

Unmet needs are the source of nearly all conflict. Or more accurately, feeling that needs are not being met is the source of it. You can probably see that this sets you up with a pretty big challenge. What do you do about a need that your child strongly feels, but which you know is only felt, not real? I don’t want to treat this lightly, but this is a big part of your job as a parent: you have to make the call on whether or not to meet a felt need. Meeting real needs is essential and required, but usually less difficult than figuring out if you should meet a merely felt one.

If you meet every felt need your child has, you get a spoiled brat. But if you meet only what you judge as real needs and never what your child feels is a need, you likely will wind up with a child who believes their job is to get what they want, and you to not get what you want. So you have to do the delicate work of making sure their real needs are met and that appropriate felt needs are also met, so they will feel loved by you and secure as a little person.

That’s way easy for me to type, but WAY hard to actually do. And, again, it’s why you need to be in solid partnership with God on this.

All this raises so many questions. How do I know if it’s a felt need or a real need? And what do I do about it when my kid is going postal about a felt need that I know they don’t need me to meet? And how do I draw the line on what felt needs are right and appropriate for me to meet? And what ones aren’t right? And then what about needs I can’t actually meet?

All good questions. And fodder for further contemplation in future blog posts.

From → Marriage, Parenting

  1. Craig Starr permalink

    Once more, you & I agree 100%, Steve!

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