Children want to feel safe. They want to know that there are boundaries, where they are, and that the adults in their lives also know where the boundaries are and will uphold them. Knowing that the adults in their lives are in control allows the child to relax and get on with the business of playing and growing. I don't think anyone would have trouble with that idea. The problems come when adults get confused about what being in control means. More often than not, being in control has much more to do with managing ourselves and very little to do with being in control of other people.
A while back I read about a study that was done regarding playgrounds and children. (If anyone has also read this and can point me back to where I found it, I would be happy to attribute it. I just can't remember where I came across it.) Children were watched as they played on different playgrounds. In the playground without a physical boundary, the children tended to play in the center of the area and did not explore or play in the whole area. Then children were observed as they played on a playground with a fence around its perimeter. In that playground, the children played on the entire space; they used and explored all the area available to them. The children felt safer and freer on the playground with the known and visible boundaries. This is also what our children are looking from us as parents as well.
How do we do this? Well, the first is obvious, but I'm afraid that many of us miss it. We need to be in control of ourselves and our reactions. Do we fly off the handle at the least little thing? Are we inconsistent in how we enforce rules or in our expectations? Have we even thought about what our family rules and expectations are? Do we lack the internal knowledge that as adults, we have permission and the obligation to make such rules?
We parents need to have thought about what is important, about what our goals for our children are, about how we would like to be treated and treat our children in the same way. Just because they are children, doesn't mean that rudeness or arbitrariness or any other negative interactions are acceptable towards them. Children will naturally push the stated limits. They want to know if those limits are important enough that you will enforce them. They want to know where those boundaries and fences are so that they can relax and feel safe. If they push against the boundaries and the boundaries fall, then safety isn't achieved and they will continue to look for where the actual boundary is. If we parents don't know where the boundaries are, how can we keep them from falling?
Calmly enforcing our stated boundaries and allowing for natural or related consequences is vastly different from outright punishment, though. If we punish our child, what is our goal? Is it to make them feel bad? Is it because we think we should? Is it because we are afraid if we do not our children will grow up to be brats? I think most parents' goals are to raise children to be functional and capable adults. We need to keep that in mind when disciplining our children.
How about some examples? Three year olds and teens are both notoriously difficult to live with. Both are doing the same cognitive and emotional work of becoming an unique person and they are trying to figure out where their parents end and where they begin. Plus, both ages are doing a lot of physical growing which is exhausting. If you look at the behaviors of both ages, they are remarkably similar. If you live with either (or both) of these ages, you often feel as though you are on a roller coaster.
In parenting, I actually find both of these ages to need the same things... lots of love, lots of understanding, and lots of sleep. If your three year old is pushing, pushing, pushing at your buttons all the time, it usually means a couple of things. First, they really are trying to figure out what they are capable of. They want to do things themselves, learn new things, try new things. I have found that if I slow down my day and let them try new skills, some of this pushing and negativeness goes away. Second, they are growing and using a lot of energy and their sleep needs are huge. A tired three year old is not a pleasant creature to live with. If one of my three year olds was being particularly negative and unpleasant, then punishment isn't going to help that, but a nap certainly will. Lastly, a crying, whining three year old is probably needing some time with Mom more than anything else. My nearly fool-proof method for this is to sit down with the child and stack of books and spend time snuggling and reading together. Try it, it usually works wonders... for both the child's mood and my own. The best discipline takes the time to see what is really needed instead of dealing with the presenting problem.
That's great with a three year old, you say, but how about the teen? Because they are bigger and more verbal and have toxic levels of hormones coursing through their bodies, the possibilities for unpleasantness and outright nastiness are much higher. Usually, though, they often need the same things as those three year olds. Teens want to do things themselves, to learn competence, to feel grown-up. Let them! Give them adult level responsibilities to try out while you are still around to pick-up the pieces when it doesn't work out. Let them fail. Let them struggle a bit with a skill. Give them meaningful work. (Just to clarify... there is no way you can convince me [or them, probably] that schoolwork constitutes meaningful work.) Teens are also growing and need sleep. If you live with a child in their teen years, you know that sleeping is possibly their favorite thing to do. Is your child crankier and more unpleasant than usual? Send them to bed to sleep. Everyone feels better after a nap. Children this age also need a parent's love just as much as a three year old. It is a scary age to experience... not knowing what the future is, wanting to grow up, yet not wanting to. Find ways to connect with your child. The sit and read picture books may not work, but you can come up with other things. Watch a movie together... play a game... go have a meal together. And give them hugs and kisses even if they brush you off. J. and I joke that parents need the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in our ears to translate what our children say into what they actually mean.
Of course, the extra challenge with this age is that they are quite capable of outright disobedience even if they are well-rested and well-loved. They are human after all. We do need to impose consequences if needed, though the art is to make the consequence related to the crime. Out too late? No, you don't get to go out the next time. Problems with saying where you were? Car keys are off limits. Rude to your parent? A lot of physical labor working for that parent isn't a bad option. It does help to state the consequences up front, before a problem occurs... it takes away some of the drama when the consequence has to happen. The parent doesn't need to add to the drama, but to calmly state what is going to happen next. (This is probably the key to raising this age... just don't add to the drama!)
Ultimately, the only control a parent has is over their actions and choices. You just cannot control another person, no matter how much you try, and you certainly cannot control 100% how your child will turn out. There are not guarantees, no matter how hard we parents look for them. Work on controlling what is important... your attitudes, your reactions, your consistency. You can think carefully about why you do certain things and make sure they align with what is important to you. You can apologize when you make mistakes (because you will). You can decide not to parent out of fear and parent out of love, instead.