Who’s In Charge – Parents or Kids? A Paradox

Kids may seem to run the roost in some homes, but all is not what it seems.

Posted Dec 18, 2018

Wikimedia Commons, Little Lord Fauntleroy, public domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Little Lord Fauntleroy, public domain

In a column from not too long ago, my favorite parenting columnist John Rosemond asked a mother and father, “Who are the most important people in your family?” They replied, as many of today's parents are inclined to do, “Our kids!”

Rosemond reacted somewhat negatively to this answer as he often does:  

“There is no reasonable thing that gives your children that status... many if not most of the problems they’re having with their kids—typical stuff, these days—are the result of treating their children as if they, their marriage, and their family exist because of the kids when it is, in fact, the other way around... without the parents, their kids wouldn’t eat well, have the nice clothing they wear, live in the nice home in which they live, enjoy the great vacations they enjoy, and so on. 

This issue is really the heart of the matter. People my age know it’s the heart of the matter because when we were kids it was clear to us that our parents were the most important people in our families. And that, right there, is why we respected our parents and that, right there, is why we looked up to adults in general."

I completely agree with Rosemond that the parents' marriage should indeed be the most important relationship in the house—not the relationship between the parents and the kids—and that the parents should be the authority figures and in charge.

This idea concerning the proper hierarchy within the house is actually the basis of one of the more effective forms of family therapy, Salvador Minuchin's structural family therapy

The only part of this on which Rosemond and I might disagree is that I have a different take on the phenomenon of parents thinking their kids should be the most important people in the house.

The part I disagree with him about is when he says that, because of the parents' behavior, it is no longer clear to children these days that the parents are in charge. In fact, our brains are biogenetically programmed to put our primary adult attachment figures in charge. Our very survival depends on it.

When the children seem to be in charge, I believe they are just acting as if it is not clear to them who is in charge; they are acting as if it is they, and not the parents. So how can we understand this paradox? It may seem confusing, but it is actually quite simple. 

If children do in fact know that parents make the important decisions in the home, and the parents in their wisdom have decided that the children are more important and that the children's choices should be paramount, then who are they to question the parents' judgment? They will go along with it! They will act like they should make all the decisions, and will continue to make them, because doing so is in line with precisely the important decision the parents seem to them to have made in this regard.

And the parents almost always continue to allow it, protest though they might to confuse the issue just a little, since it is they who decided that this is the way it is supposed to be. In this context, their actions speak a whole lot louder than their words.