Calm Leaders

With interest, amusement and understanding I read the recent New York Times article “Becoming the Alpha Dog in Your Own Home.” Cesar Millan, TV’s Dog Whisperer, is inspiring armies of parents to use his dog training techniques to bring the security of order and discipline to their children’s lives. Parents are realizing that children, like dogs, need an able leader. But if the Alpha is the child, then the balance of power at home is out of whack. This can create big problems.

While I’m uncomfortable with comparing children to dogs, it is true that kids (even the most assertive and bossy ones) do not really want to be in charge. They want to know that there are caring, loving, Alphas that will lead them, correct their limit-pushing behavior, and protect them from harm. Of course, it is easier for us to risk saying “no” to a dog than our child. A dog loves unconditionally and never holds a grudge when we lay down the law. Our children might react differently. Will we seem too strict and mean if we establish our authority? Will we crush our child’s spirit?

Infant expert Magda Gerber often reminded parents that without structure, expectations and predictability, there is no real freedom. “The freedom we all feel deep within ourselves comes once we understand where we stand in the scheme of things,” she wrote in Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect.

God created parents to parent. Children need a parent to establish rules and say “no” to unacceptable behaviors with calm conviction (or “calm-assertive energy,” as Cesar Millan describes it). If a child does not feel a presence of consistent authority, even in the face of anger or tears, that child will not have the sense of security he needs.

My personal route to understanding this truth was slow and bumpy. The problem was the way I defined love. I thought that love was kissing, hugging, saying “I love you” a million times a day and never making the person you love feel badly about anything.

When I first became a mom, you could never have convinced me that love meant carrying a kicking and screaming toddler out of party because she was tired and her behavior was off-track. I didn’t want an argument or confrontation, and I certainly did not want a scene. I wanted to be the good cop or no cop at all. I did not understand that real love is saying “no,” and then being confident and strong enough to endure the repercussions. “Yes, yes, YES” seemed so much easier.

Magda Gerber’s guidance helped me to learn that my assertive daughter was ultimately more relaxed and confident when I did not appease her every wish. I taught myself to don an imaginary coat of armor, say “no” with conviction and deflect the screams and cries that often came my way in response. At first it was difficult to not let an emotional onslaught ruin my day, or even my week. But eventually I learned to congratulate myself on those trying days for my heroic parenting performances. I began to understand that allowing my daughter’s tantrums while holding my ground was a prime learning opportunity for both of us.

Children will not usually agree with our enforcement of a rule in the moment and say, “Good job, Mom!” But when limits are firmly set, they will eventually let go of the need to test us and focus on more mutually satisfying activities. Establishing boundaries does not break a child’s spirit. It frees her spirit. If you look closely, you can almost see the child breathing a huge sigh of relief. How frightening to be a two, four, or even seventeen-year-old and be in charge!

A child’s need for clear, calm control is demonstrated in almost every parent/toddler class I teach.

In a recent class, Rebecca was testing. There is a small area on the new classroom deck that has been deemed out of bounds because it is a place where equipment is kept. Since the toddlers are now physically able to climb over the low wooden walls of this off-limit section, the previous week I had established a new rule: they were permitted to climb on top of the walls, but not go over them.

This week Rebecca approached the walls a few minutes after arriving to class. Rebecca’s mom rushed over to stop her from climbing over. Rebecca retreated, circled the deck and then, as her mom sat down again, she went running back to the wall. This time I approached her, and in my most matter-of-fact but firm manner said, “I won’t let you climb over.” Our eyes locked, and she made a move to go over, but I stopped her with my hands. I said, “Can you get down by yourself?” “Yeah,” she answered, and she did. (If she had “no,” I would have gently removed her from the wall myself.) We did this dance a couple more times as she tested my resolve, then finally clear that the rule was firm, she turned her attention to some stainless steel bowls and began stacking.

Rebecca’s mom Teresa is one of my favorite students because of her kindness, honesty and candor. She is sensitive and has difficulties — as I once did — projecting authority. We talked about the way she had rushed over excitedly, almost fearfully to stop her daughter from climbing the forbidden wall. She had reacted as if it was an urgent, dangerous situation, but it was not. So instead of the calm authority Rebecca needed to be reassured of her mom’s firm control of this situation (or any other), she received a message of nervousness and panic.

It is disconcerting, even frightening for a child when a parent acts nervously or fearful about his or her behavior. Teresa’s understandable over-reaction “charged” the experience, making it an activity Rebecca would be distracted by until it could be resolved calmly. When the boundary was established with calm control, she could re-engage in the freedom of play.

Guiding a child’s behavior by establishing clear expectations, enforcing rules and saying “no” does not come naturally to many of us. We may have to act the part at first, but leading our “pack” becomes easier when we see the way it benefits our children in the short and long term.

Of course, raising a child is infinitely more complicated and nuanced than training a dog. We must provide clear boundaries out of love and respect, so that our children will internalize our lessons, develop self-control and respect us in return. As Magda Gerber wrote, our ultimate goal is to “raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being.”

 I offer a complete guide to gentle leadership in my book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. “Our ultimate goal is to raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being in.” Now, if only most parent could keep the above in mind (like a mantra) when approaching child rearing. I loved the example of Rebecca and Teresa’s interaction. Perfect example of how to ‘nip it in the bud.’

  2. Bumped over to this because you mentioned it in today’s post. Very good reminder. This is often tough to do but I will keep trying!!

  3. The only problem with the dog/child analogy is that children grow up. They need to eventually become independent adults. Pet owners aren’t raising a dog to someday go out on its own and succeed in the world. They just need the dog to behave. Raising a child is much more complex.

    1. Olivia, you’re absolutely right, there’s a lot wrong with the dog/child analogy. But to be able to “go out on your own and succeed in the world” (as a person or a dog…ha, just kidding), an extremely secure base is essential. The unconditional love, the age appropriate freedom and autonomy and the secure boundaries we provide give children that base. When those things aren’t in place, children can still succeed, but it’s much harder.

  4. At what age does this apply? My child is 9.5months and whenever I say No to him I look him in the eye and use a strong, calm voice but he shows absolutely zero signs that he understands me and just keeps going. I end up having to remove him as otherwise he just keeps going. Since a month ago I really had no reason to ever say No to him but since then he has gotten more mobile and inquisitive and he really enjoys unplugging the Internet 500 times a day and sticking the cord in his mouth as well as standing up in bath and many other exciting yet dangerous things! Will he get the message or is there a better way to teach this age?

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