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Female vs. Male Authority: Are Moms the Underdog?

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Several months ago my little family underwent a big change—my boyfriend and his teenage son moved in. Though very wanted and welcome, it was a major change for me and my son. For so many years, I had managed to get by as a single parent. If there was something to be done—from patching up a scraped knee to laying down the law after a broken rule—I did it. My word was obviously the final word around our house because it was the only parental word to be heard.

Still, I’ve dealt with listening issues over the years. My son has selective hearing, just like most kids do at times. But the listening issue was never more apparent than it became after my boyfriend moved in. It didn’t take long for me to realize that both of our boys respond to my boyfriend immediately, whereas they’re more likely to talk back to me or ignore me completely.

I discovered that I repeat myself a lot and my boyfriend—who isn’t a yeller and isn’t harsh with the boys at all—only has to say things once. We’ve talked about the issue, and my boyfriend says he doesn’t think I do anything different or wrong, but it’s just that kids respond better to “the dad voice.”

The dad voice. Hmm … Having spent too many years repairing skateboard wheels and anything else that needs fixing, I just couldn’t let this stay broken. And I wasn’t about to start faking a deep voice just to get noticed.

A quick, informal poll of my Facebook friends revealed a pattern: 75 percent of those that responded think their kids listen to their dad better. But why? My friend and fellow writer Francesca Clarke admits that in moments of frustration she’s found herself “reporting” to her husband at the end of the day. “It’s actually pretty destructive,” says Clarke. “It gives the kids an impression that Dad is the final word on things. It undermines me and gives my husband a role he doesn’t want.” Clarke has made strides to deal with things in the moment and to be more consistent. She says she and her husband have recognized how important it is for their kids to see them as “one unit working toward common family goals.”

My boyfriend and I are both at home, so our issue isn’t the same as Clarke’s. But, upon giving my parenting skills an honest evaluation, I’ll admit that I make comments or suggestions more than I directly tell my boys what to do.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham of agrees that the authority divide is less about gender and more a matter of assertiveness and tone. “I’ve noticed that moms often use a more hesitant tone and are more likely to phrase their request in the form of a question,” says Dr. Markham. “If the request is non-negotiable, then it needs to be phrased as such.”

What moms say and how we present it matters. Repeating requests over and over and getting louder every time isn’t the way to go. “Moms also seem to talk more than dads,” continues Dr. Markham. “Any time you have to ask a second time, it means you have to ask differently. For instance, if the kid didn’t stop playing and go feed the dog, I would go over, put my hand on his arm, look him in the eye, and say ‘The dog is hungry, honey. Now, please.’ When it’s clear you’re right there and not going away, any child will comply. This is not only more effective, it’s more respectful than nagging.”

If, like me, you’re a mom who’s struggling to be heard, Dr. Markham offers the following suggestions:

  • Don’t start talking until you have your child’s attention. Get down on your kid’s level, touch him lightly, and look him in the eye. Or make sure you have his attention by asking “Can I tell you something?”
  • Don’t repeat yourself. If you’ve asked once and not gotten a response, don’t just repeat yourself. Make sure you have your child’s attention and try a different tactic.
  • Use fewer words. Most of us dilute our message and lose our kid’s attention by using too many words.
  • See it from your child’s point of view. It will help immensely if you can acknowledge how much your child wants to keep doing whatever he’s doing. “I know it’s hard to stop playing now, but I need you to … ”
  • Engage cooperation. Keep your tone friendly and give kids choices. “It’s bath time. Do you want to go now or in five minutes? Okay, five minutes with no fuss? Let’s shake on it.”
  • Stay neutral. When we’re emotional, kids get distracted by our emotion and lose sight of our message.
  • Set up routines. The more routines you have — such as bedtime habits or what they do to get ready in the morning — the less you have to be a drill sergeant.
  • Listen. If you stare at your computer screen or review your shopping list while your child tells you about his day, you’re role modeling how communication is handled in your house. If you really want your child to listen to you, stop what you’re doing and listen.

What do you do to improve your child’s listening?  


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