Grandma’s Rule: An Example of Using Direct Parenting Power and Influence

Direct power is one way parents try to have power and influence. Direct power is simple and straightforward. It involves directly informing children what to do and what not to do. It’s bossy and often manipulative but not necessarily tyrannical. As we all know, it’s possible to have a benevolent boss, someone to look up to as a respected authority. Alternatively, many of us know or have experienced a tyrannical boss. For many reasons, well-established through parenting research and child development, when direct power is needed, parents should enact that power in a wise and benevolent manner—rather than behaving as a controlling tyrant (Baumrind, 1975). A parent we once worked with articulated this practical principle when she told us her philosophy of parenting. She said, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.”

Direct power can be communicated through voice tone (that extremely firm or even snarling voice), voice loudness (a raised level, even yelling), body posture (standing and pointing), eye contact and facial expression (a hard stare, serious face, or even an unpleasant grimace), and other physical means. Spanking, hitting, and all physical approaches to discipline are classic efforts at exerting direct power. Similarly, when parents use threatening words or verbal abuse with their child, usually they’re trying—somewhat desperately—to directly influence their child’s emotional state or behavior.  When things get desperate, verbal efforts to influence children often end up sounding rather absurd. For example, we’ve heard parents saying things like,

  • “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
  • “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”

Obviously, yelling, hitting, and verbal abuse are threatening and extreme means of trying to exert parental influence or control and we don’t advice using these approaches.

Grandma’s Rule is an example of a reasonable and relatively effective direct power and influence parenting strategy. This strategy is a language-based intervention that clearly spells out the sequence of desired or required behaviors and optional or reinforcing behaviors. Grandma’s Rule always follows a “When you/then you” format. For example, a parent might say to her child, “When you finish the dishes, then you can call your friends.” Using Grandma’s Rule is a clear and concise way to communicate parental authority by letting the child know exactly what he or she needs to do before engaging in a fun and positively rewarding activity. If you’d like to experience how Grandma’s Rule feels, try this out on yourself: “When you finish reading this blog, then you can check your Facebook account.”

When working with parents who sometimes use ambiguous language with their children, or with parents who are ambivalent about exerting authority, Grandma’s Rule can be very helpful. In particular, parents may need to be coached on avoiding the use of if instead of when.  For example, parents who say, “If you do the dishes, then you can call your friends,” convey a sense of uncertainty as to whether their children really will be doing the dishes. Children who have oppositional or defiant tendencies will quickly latch onto the if and begin a debate over whether that behavior will ever occur. Grandma’s Rule always involves using “When you/then you” language.

In the next day or two I’ll be posting a short description of Indirect Power and Influence strategies. All of this material is excerpted or adapted from our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” You can find it on Amazon at:

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