Tough Love

We had a friend over during the holidays, and she was telling us about her problems with her 11 year-old stepdaughter. “We have rules,” she was telling us proudly, “and if she breaks them, there are consequences.” Then we listened to stories of the stepdaughter breaking the rules: not cleaning her room, using her smart phone too much, and hitting her stepmother in anger when she tried to impose the “consequences,” which included taking away her new cell phone, not taking her on a cruise with them, and not having her join them at Thanksgiving. 

I was cringing at these stories, but they were being told with incredible self-righteousness, as if giving a kid orders and harsh punishments when they don’t obey them is universally understood to be the only sane way to raise a child. 

I don’t like to hear about parents telling kids what to do, simply because I have never wanted to be told what to do. My father tried telling me, “As long as you’re living in my house, you’ll do things my way,” and as a result, we fought for most of my teenage years. Finally, one night he sat on my bed and cried, and said he was sorry, but he just didn’t know how to be a good father to me. That was the first time he asked for my help instead of telling me what to do, and he never had a problem with me again. 

Even in a work setting you couldn’t tell me what to do. An employer once asked me to do something a certain way, and I said that wouldn’t work. He said, “Maybe you should just do it because I said so.” I laughed. I thought he was kidding. 

I try not to tell people what to do, because I don’t like to be told what to do. So I wonder, is our friend behaving in an authoritative way with her child because that’s the way she, herself, wants to be treated? Are there some people who actually like to be told, “Do this because I said so,” and are they a certain type?

I don’t think it’s intuitives, because I’m an intuitive and I will strongly resist any threat to my autonomy. It’s not SPs either, because for them, rules are just something to cleverly dodge. Can it be SJs? Our friend is an ESFJ who was raised in a very relaxed household. Is she reaching for rules because that’s what she intrinsically needed as a child, and didn’t get?

Then I remembered that I raised two SJ’s, and I can’t recall having a single rule in our house. Except for a few time-outs when my son was little, I also don’t think we meted out a single punishment or reward. We had good habits and predictable routines, but we never formally said, “You must do this or you will be punished.” We wanted to be connected to each other, and we quickly learned to avoid the behaviors that broke that connection. When we had more serious issues, we talked about it one-on-one. After those talks, I noticed that without even being aware of it, we both changed our behavior a bit to accommodate each other. What else do you need, especially in a family?

When I hear people talk so reverently about rules and consequences, I wonder, did I do my kids a disservice by not having rules for them? Is a parenting style that is authoritative, with formal rules and tangible rewards and punishments, the best way to raise an SJ child?

So I decided to ask my kids, who are in their mid-20’s, “Would you have liked more rules when you were growing up?”

“God no,” said my ISFJ daughter. “I hate that stuff. I don’t even like it that I have to be at work at a certain time. I like to be in control of my own life and rules just make me feel like I don’t have control. Here’s an example: I just took an online course and I loved it because I could work on it when I wanted to. I finished it three weeks early and was sorry it was over so soon.”

“I’m not going to break rules if they’re there, but I wouldn’t say I like them,” said my ESFJ son. “Right now, I’m coaching a team of 8-year old boys in basketball and they are very active and talkative. I know some of the parents want me to be stricter and lay out rules and discipline them, but that’s not really my style. I’d rather find exercises that keep them engaged than give them a penalty for not paying attention.”

So if there is no type that needs to be raised with absolute authority, why do people still brag about keeping their kids in line with a strong, unyielding will?

It might be that they just can’t think of another way. It’s a scary business when children do something that makes you feel like you don’t have control, like disobey you or put themselves in danger. We all race around looking for relief from that feeling. Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind is to take back our control with a show of strength to scare kids into submission. 

I think what all parents need are some options, some way to feel in control without taking all control away from their child. A book that always helped me feel in control again was the type-and-parenting book, Nurture by Nature. The authors, Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, describe the strengths and challenges of each type of child in such an appreciative and forgiving way that after you read your child’s profile, you feel ready to approach them with love and calm. For example, when my ISFJ daughter was 11, I was about to storm into her room and put my foot down about her pickiness and how annoying it was. Instead, I got out the book and read about how difficult it is for an ISFJ to compromise on tastes, smells and textures. Later, I was able to tell her my concerns in a nice way, and listen with understanding as she told her side of it. How do you thank someone for that?

I think I might send a copy of Nurture by Nature to my friend, with a note saying, “This helped me a lot when my kids were teens. Let me know what you think of it.”


Editor's note: There is a personality type assessment for kids. The MMTIC® type indicator for children measures type in students from grades 2 through 12. Learn more.

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  1. Marian Hobson

    #1 by Marian Hobson - February 5, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    I do agree that the way you raise your children should be customized to their personality. I also think it's great for parents to seek feedback from their kids. (LOVE what you and your Dad learned)
    Some expectations, rules and family structure are good as well. Strong punishments that are fixed for the entire family are outrageous!
    As one who played the role of the "wicked step-mother" in my stepsons' lives my larger problem with your friend's story is her being the disciplinarian for her step-daughter. There are TONS of family dynamics playing out there that could be looked at.
  2. Susan Scanlon

    #2 by Susan Scanlon - February 6, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    Thank you Marian. My kids grew up with my expectations, they didn't have to get used to them after they were used to someone else's expectations. That must be hard.

    My friend and her husband are both very strict with the girl, but they complain that the mother, who has shared custody, is too lax. They could be overreacting to the mother's style. I hope it settles down in time when they all get used to each other.
  3. Elizabeth Murphy

    #3 by Elizabeth Murphy - February 15, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    When some parents cease giving consequences they also quit giving advice and guidance. Children still need to know when their behavior is not socially appropriate. How we help them realize better alternatives is when type awareness is the best tool.
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