“This is not a democracy” has become popular parent-speak for, “You do as I say, and I don’t want to hear any more arguments.” Granted, kids don’t “elect” their parents—and shouldn’t have the right to “outvote” them on matters of health, safety, and civilized behavior. But if the household isn’t a place of 100 percent equality, it shouldn’t be a totalitarian state either. Where children live in fear of their parents’ wrath; where things are always done the same old way because “that’s how we do it in this family”; where free speech is stifled and the only choices are mindless obedience or outright rebellion—you have a situation that slowly erodes the human element in any society or family.

How can you give children a fair voice without letting childish behavior run wild?

Establish Rules in Advance

If you make the rules up as you go, of course your kids will assume that following their own impulse judgments is the way things are done. And if you hand down pages and pages of rules from above, of course the kids will get confused or rebellious. Have a few basic requirements with sound values and healthy boundaries, and be prepared to give a reasonable answer when someone asks for the “whys” behind a rule. Every six months or so, hold a family meeting to review house rules and let everyone contribute input on what might need change or adjustment.

Listen—Really Listen

Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it’s bad. And just because your children disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Often, we let our pride put a “no one contradicts me” filter over any attempt to understand the reasons behind the other party’s opinion—which not only hurts the relationship, but narrows everything to “one of two options,” perhaps cheating both sides out of a better third alternative.

When Faced With a Broken Record, Move the Needle

Remember old-style phonograph records? When they got scratched, the player needle could jam in that spot and begin playing the same line over and over. Unlike the modern disc player, the phonograph couldn’t find its own way out of the scratched section: you had to physically lift its arm and move the needle to a “clean” spot. Note that this routine solution relied on the gentle approach. Anyone who immediately gave up on hearing the rest of the record, or who threw the phonograph across the room, would be looked on as odd in the head.

Likewise, if your child keeps playing the “But why can’t we do it my way?” refrain after you’ve already explained twice why not, you don’t have to send her to time-out or issue an “I don’t want to hear any more” ultimatum. Change the subject to something that captures your child’s immediate interest—and if that fails, just excuse yourself and walk away.

Good leaders, including parents, don’t need to defend their authority at all costs. They know how to command respect by having the confidence not to demand it.