Someone recently asked if I agree with the currently popular parenting adage that “rules without relationship lead to rebellion.”
No, I do not. First, as a writer, I am keenly aware that alliteration can be very misleadingly seductive. There have been times, for example, when I came up with a clever alliterative phrase and convinced myself, temporarily, that clever and correct were one and the same. The phrase in question is clever, but it is not correct.
Rules without relationship with the rule-giver is the case in the military, a corporation, and a properly-run classroom. In none of those cases does the absence of a close relationship between the person in authority and those over whom he/she exercises authority lead inevitably to rebellion. The fact is that persons in positions of leadership cannot afford to enter into relationships with the people they are leading. Mind you, they are going to HAVE relationships with those people. That’s unavoidable. But they should be careful not to enter INTO relationships with them. The effective leader knows that relationship boundary has to exist in order for him/her to be seen and properly responded to as an authority figure.
When the thin line between having a relationship and being in a relationship is crossed by a person in a leadership position—and parenting is a leadership role—authority is sacrificed. In fact, it is correct to say that when someone who has established a close relationship with someone else then tries to exercise authority over that person, resentment is the inevitable outcome. When the understanding is “I’m your friend” and the friend then tries to set limits on the befriended, the latter’s reaction is going to be somewhere between confused and angry. In short, rules with relationship lead to resentment and, quite possibly, rebellion.
But mere leadership is not enough. The only people qualified to establish rules, limits, and expectations over other people are those in positions of ethical leadership, defined as “exercised for the purpose of bringing out the best in the people being led.” Unfortunately, unethical people — people whose primary objectives are self-edification and self-advancement — are sometimes found in leadership positions. Even some parents are guilty of this sort of ego-tripping. The distinction is simple: Ethical leaders command; unethical leaders demand. The former is accomplished naturally, with ease and calm confidence. The latter is characterized by stress and threat (overt and implied). Wherever found, the unethical leader is a very insecure person who abuses the responsibilities of leadership by “lording over” other people.
The natural response to ethical leadership is relaxed submission. This is true of adults, and it is true of children. The research shows that obedient children score highest on scales of happiness and adjustment. These happy kids understand, intuitively, that their parents do what they do not out of self-interest but out of genuine love and concern for their present and future welfare. So, even when they don’t agree, they submit.
The ethical leader wants relationship but does not rush it. His aim is to bring out so much “best” in the people he is leading that they are eventually qualified for relationship with him. So the private advances through the ranks and becomes an officer, the salesperson is eventually promoted to sales manager, and the child eventually becomes a truly grown-up responsible adult who is in a peer-to-peer relationship with his parents.
The truth, then: Rules with ethical leadership lead eventually to relationship. But the cart must not be put before the horse.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at http://www.rosemond.com/.