When your 3-year-old won’t get dressed in the morning or your 6-year-old refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets, you may long for compliance. You want a child who cooperates, who listens to parental wisdom without endless arguing, who just does what you say, dang it. Because you want what’s best for your child and you know more than they do. And it would take so much less energy if your kid would just comply….
As kids grow up, it’s reasonable that they learn to comply, to a great extent. You teach them the skills they need to function in a complex world. They need to follow safety rules, obey social norms (like being polite and not hitting), take care of their bodies, pick up after themselves, help around the house, and develop study habits. You’re responsible for your kids for a reason. Their brains haven’t developed enough for them make mature decisions for themselves, so you have to provide structure and set expectations. Because you’re responsible for your minor children, you rightly have authority over them.
But too much authority, with too much emphasis on compliance, can backfire. In some cases, kids rebel; at the other extreme, they won’t learn to speak up for themselves.
We’d like to raise kids who comply with us—but who magically grow up to be assertive, independent adults.
Obviously, you can’t really expect kids to be docile followers with you and know-their-own-mind, self-starting leaders out in the world. Assertiveness is a skill, and you can teach it by tolerating challenges to your authority, within reason, and allowing increasing independence as kids mature. Rather than making decrees, you can explain your thinking, including the risks and benefits of various choices.
Let’s apply this to sexuality.
Many parents, worried about the perils of sex and dating, tell kids the conclusion of their own thought process—that teens shouldn’t do x, or should wait for sex until y, etc. Sometimes this is followed by a threat of dire consequences (“If you have sex before you’re married, I’ll…”).
Coming down hard on an important subject is an understandable approach—but it isn’t the most effective one. Too much emphasis on compliance with parental authority has two risks:
Risk #1: Your child may comply with the wishes of someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart. That might be advertisers, the porn industry, or peers (maybe a specific partner) who push a kid to do something they’re not ready for. In the worst case, it could be an authority figure like a coach who’s making inappropriate advances. In all these situations, you want your kid to think for himself and stand up to the external pressures. This is harder to do if all he’s been allowed to practice is doing what someone else says.
Risk #2: You may provoke rebellion. It’s natural for teens to push back against their parents; that’s part of the process of becoming separate and independent. If you’ve made a huge deal about staying a virgin or whatever, guess how your teen may choose to assert their independence?
Instead, over the years, help your kid think carefully about what he or she wants in various areas, rather than what other people say he or she should want. Let her make some choices you disagree with, especially when they don’t have negative long-term consequences. Talk with him about possible outcomes of various decisions a teen might make. Explain why you think something is a good or bad idea, so she develops her critical thinking skills. Accept that as he grows up, he will make more and more of his own decisions, and sometimes you won’t like them.
When it comes to dating and sex, especially, encourage your child to listen to the inner voice that says “I don’t want to do that” or “This isn’t right for me.” Give them enough practice standing up to you that when the time comes to stand up to someone else, they’ll have the skills and the self confidence to do it.