Imagine that you find a policeman at your door one Saturday morning. You’re surprised. You ask how you can help him. “Apparently your teenage son was out with his friends last night and they blew up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox. She is very upset. I need to take your son to the station for questioning.”
Let’s use this situation as an example as we consider three categories of control described by parenting scholars. The first is power assertion in which the parent approaches non-compliance with force: “If you don’t do as I say, you will suffer,” said ominously. Or: “You’ll do it because I say so!” with an assumed threat of violence. You won’t be surprised to learn that power assertion is associated with bad parenting outcomes. Children tend to become either passive or rebellious. They tend to be less socially competent and have less conscience.
A parent who uses power assertion might respond to the news from the officer by marching to his son and shouting threats. “You are grounded until you are 65! I hope you enjoy prison!”
The second category of control is love withdrawal which sends children the message: “I don’t want anything to do with you if you act that way.” The parent may walk away from the child leaving him feeling unlovable. Love withdrawal has not been shown to work successfully in controlling children. And it creates children who feel guilty.
A parent who uses love withdrawal might approach the son and express disappointment. “I thought you were becoming a good boy. I was wrong.” You can see that this is likely to create guilt without helping your son learn better ways.
Fortunately, there is a third child control technique which is effective. Scholars call it induction and it is defined as parental behavior that minimizes the use of power, uses reasoning, and helps the child understand the effect of his behavior on others. This kind of parenting sounds remarkably similar to what the Lord recommends:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— (D&C 121:41-2)
As we should have expected, the Lord has always understood principles of effective influence. Parental use of induction is associated with many positive outcomes for children including greater success, social competence, and moral development. Induction is powerful parenting.
We should note that induction can only be done correctly by a parent who feels peaceful and appreciative of the child. Your heart must be right.
What would effective induction look like in the situation described above? The parent might ask the officer if she could have some time with her son and then bring him by the station later. A good parent is worth 100 police officers when it comes to moral development in children.
The initial approach to the son is vitally important. An angry, screaming parent creates a child who is worried about safety more than goodness. A parent who expresses disappointment does not teach the child anything. The best approach engages the boy’s mind and heart without overwhelming him. We want to educate his soul. The parent might calmly say: “A policeman was just here to see you.”
That should get his attention.
It is almost always unproductive to ask a question for which you already have the answer. Rather than ask, “Did you do anything stupid or illegal last night?” you might say: “Apparently you and your friends used your newly-acquired fireworks to blow up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox last night.”
And here is a vital element of induction: We give the child the benefit of the doubt. “I know how much fun it is to use fireworks. And I know that you and your friends like to have fun. I’m sure that you intended Mrs. Jones no harm.”
Your son may sputter: “Why is that such a big deal? It was just an old mailbox!”
“It might seem like an old mailbox isn’t that big of a deal. But just as your property is important to you and you wouldn’t want someone destroying it, that mailbox was important to her. And it’s against the law to destroy someone else’s property.”
Obviously, this discussion requires wisdom, diplomacy, and sensitivity. The objective is to activate your son’s mind and heart without causing distracting anxiety or resistance.
Son: “That’s crazy! It’s not like we are criminals!”
Mom: “I think we can work this out. If you would like, I will go with you to the police station. We can offer to buy Mrs. Jones a new mailbox and install it with the appropriate apologies. Does that sound okay to you?”
It is possible that processing the situation may be upsetting to your son. A break or pause may be necessary: “Should we take a break so you have time to settle down?”
When he is ready to sustain a calm conversation, he might say: “You’re right. We should buy her a new mailbox.”
“Thanks, Son. I’m glad you are willing to take responsibility.” The process of educating your son’s mind is well begun. Now comes the educating of his heart.
“May I share a part of the situation that would be easy for you to miss? You might not know that Mrs. Jones is a widow and has lived alone since her husband died some years ago. I wonder what it was like for her to be awakened in the middle of the night last night with the sounds of stomping on her porch and then explosions. I know she was already uncomfortable living alone. She felt very vulnerable. I wonder if she is now overwhelmed and panicked.”
The objective is not to fill your son with guilt but with compassion. He might respond: “Oh, Mom! I didn’t think of that. I am so sorry! We did not want to frighten her. We were just having fun with fireworks.”
“Yes. I know you would never want to hurt her or frighten her. I’m glad you are compassionate. Do you have any ideas how you can help her feel safe again?”
“The guys and I could apologize to her and offer to mow her lawn this summer. Do you think that would help?”
“Son, I am so glad that you want to help her. May I go with you when you go? Together we can help Mrs. Jones feel safer.”
No parent-child conversation follows a tidy script. But we can apply eternal principles. The induction process is intended to educate your child’s mind and heart. It helps children anticipate how their behavior will affect others. It involves appropriate consequences. Wisely used, induction results in the heart and soul of moral development: an internalized concern for others.
While power assertion and love withdrawal may or may not control behavior, induction invites the child to think about other people and their needs. It changes children into ever-better people. It helps them to begin the important process of regulating their own behavior.
This is “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” It is the best kind of parenting. It is the same kind Heavenly Father uses with His children.
Invitation: Think how you might have applied induction in a parenting challenge you recently faced. See if you can be prepared to use these principles the next time you face a need to redirect your child.
Recommendations: Martin Hoffman has written scholarly works on the uses of induction. The more practical approach to parenting is given by Haim Ginott who combined compassion with limits. I heartily recommend his Between Parent and Child. (Disclosure: I helped update his work for the current edition.)
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful suggestions for this article.