It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Power Struggles

I know I promised you a follow-up to the book I discovered, Beyond Time-Out, but I can’t! I’ve already lent it to a parent. Obviously, I need to buy my own copy. Or two.

However, the book did get me thinking about a few things, and I’m going to muse on one of them today.

“Oh, I never get into a power struggle with my child. You just can’t win those!”

Have you heard this? I have, quite routinely. The parent who says it is generally quite pleased with herself. She (less commonly he) seems to view it as a point of pride. A rueful one, perhaps, but a point of pride nonetheless. It’s a thread in the parenting ether out there, a parenting meme: Avoid power struggles. They’re costly, they’re exhausting, and, more to the point you just. can’t. win. Why dive into the stress and the mess when you know it’ll only result in humiliation and frustration?

I agree with a lot of that. Avoid unnecessary power struggles, of course. Don’t foolishly set yourself up for one, because they are indeed costly and exhausting, emotionally and physically.

But.

“You just can’t win?”

Are you nuts?

You have to win. In the first three or four years of life, establishing your role as authority in the child’s life is one of your primary parenting job. You do that all sorts of ways: by caring for their physical needs, by being emotionally available and supportive, by loving them to itty-bitty bits.

And by winning power struggles.

I think the resistance to the idea of winning these struggles has three sources.

1. Many people don’t like the idea of “power” in a family context. It smacks of authoritarianism, of oppression. They read “win” and “power”, and they think “power tripping” and “bullying”.

2. When in a power struggle, your toddler will, along with the raging, almost certainly cry. A loving parent hates to see their child cry, and many loving parents respond to the tears by backing away from the conflict. They may even feel guilty at having provoked the tears, and never want to do that again! What kind of a parent, they wonder, is willing to trample roughshod over their child’s feelings just because some toys need to be picked up?

3. Many people have tried to tackle their toddler … and have lost. Ignominiously. They have skittered from the fray, tail between their legs, uncomfortably and humiliatingly aware that not only are the toys still not picked up, but they have been bested by someone who comes up to their belt buckle and who still says “yeyyow” instead of “yellow”. (And is probably pointing to something orange when s/he says it.) Who wants to repeat that experience?

Given these points, why do I insist that you must win power struggles?

The short-term answer: Family harmony.

It’s your job as the parent to be the authority in your family. If you let your child think you’re afraid of power struggles, they will set them up. You won’t have to worry about seeking out a power struggle — they’ll be thrown at you. What’s the end result of a parent who can’t or won’t see a power struggle through and prevail? Chaos. And conflict. Continuing, unrelenting conflict.

The long-term answer: Your child’s happiness.

Toddlers like to vie for power. They want to be in control … but they aren’t developmentally ready for it. They have no idea how to wield power constructively. They are impulsive, short-sighted, impetuous, selfish. They will choose to do things that are just not good for themselves. You cannot trust a child to know what is in her or her own best interests.

A person who has never learned to share power, to defer to others is not going to get along well in life. They will likely be ostracized by their peers, because who wants to be friends with a person who always must have things their way? They will likely experience more conflict, as their peers push back with more vigour than their parents ever did.

Sadly, loving but misguided parental efforts to avoid tears and conflict … results in long-term conflict and dissatisfaction for the child — who is, one day, going to be an adult. Unless they can learn those life lessons elsewhere — from more rough-and-ready peers, from some good teachers, from other family members — they will not be happy people.

If it’s so bad for them, why do they do it?

- they don’t know it’s bad for them. No point in asking the child why. They don’t know! If you step back a pace, it doesn’t take long to see that no toddler has the cognitive and emotional maturity to know why they do what they do.
- it is developmentally normal for a toddler to be testing the boundaries. Who are you? Who are they? Are they a separate person from you? YES! And how do they express their autonomy? PUSHING BACK! SAYING NO! RESISTANCE! DEFIANCE! Wheeee… However, just because something is developmentally normal does not mean that a parent does nothing to shape and direct that stage. Besides, the purpose of this stage is to establish their autonomy and your role as a strong resource. If you’re not strong, they are undermined. Ironically, what they need at this stage is the exact opposite of what they want.

A further irony here is that if a parent consistently backs down from power struggles in order to avoid tears, they only ensure ever more of them. You must see them through.

What is “seeing it through”?
- it does not mean humiliating or brow-beating your child
- it does not mean frightening your child
- it does not mean pleading, coaxing, negotiating
- it does means ignoring the protests and calmly but firmly seeing that the request is accomplished
- it is often entirely possible to do this with a light touch; I regularly use humour

What is gained by consistently seeing power struggles through to the end?
- the conflict ends
- the child is calm
- the damned toys get picked up
- there will be fewer and fewer power struggles
- you can say something once, calmly and cheerfully, and with only occasional exceptions, that’s what happens
- your child feels secure, knowing they can rely on you to be their safe harbour when their emotions get the best of them
– your child trusts you

Okay. So let’s say you’ve all bought in to this idea. Power struggles are inevitable. The parent must see them through. They are not to be avoided at all costs. And you will never, ever again say, “Oh, I never get into power struggles with my child!” as if this is a parental accomplishment instead of a) an impossibility and b) a mistake.

You’ve bought into all that. Now you’re saying, “Okay, but how? How do you respond? What happens next?”

That’ll be for the next post in this series, when I get my hands back on that book! This might not happen until next week, but we’ll get there!

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January 17, 2013 - Posted by | books, parenting, power struggle | , ,

4 Comments »

  1. I always tell parents that they need to pick the hill they want to die on very, very carefully. So, whether or not the kids’ socks match is probably completely unimportant, but bedtime is not up for negotiation. My clients always nod sagely. Then they go back to having screaming rows in my entryway over mittens (to walk from the door to the car) where they then go home and let the kids stay up ’til all hours.

    Write that book, Mary! I’m begging you, here. :D

    Yes, but does the kid end up wearing the mittens to the car, or do we have a screaming row for diddly? In which case, probably exactly the same thing is happening at bedtime…

    Comment by Hannah | January 17, 2013 | Reply

  2. I see this same thing in dog owners all the time. They constantly lose battles and then just end up avoiding them. I myself avoid TURNING THINGS INTO power struggles. Why turn dinner into a power struggle, when I could just shrug and take the food away when he doesn’t want to finish his vegetables? Why turn putting shoes on into a power struggle when I could turn it into a game? I find a lot of parents turn things into battles that don’t NEED to be battles.

    But if something HAS to be a battle, like the shoe game ploy didn’t work, then I make sure I effing win them. I mean, I’m older, smarter and more powerful than him. How can you LOSE?

    I like that: don’t turn things into power struggles, but if the child insists on doing so, SEE IT THROUGH.

    Comment by IfByYes | January 17, 2013 | Reply

  3. Great post! I am not even a parent (yet) and this is exactly how I feel about these issues and how I “parent” my dc kiddos. It IS hard work, but it is worth it every time.

    Thank you. Those of us who successfully manage groups of children have this sorted out … or we wouldn’t be successful! I’m sure you’ll readily apply what you know and practice now to your future children.

    Comment by jbjokne | January 21, 2013 | Reply

  4. I’m lovin this post and wishing i could make it required reading fot all the parents of toddlers I know (well actually if i could put it in a time machine for many of those who I encounter who are parents of over-priveledged preteens!) Yes, Mary, time to Book-up.. More people need to read you wisdom.

    Do you have any post about parents stating what their child’s mood is upon arrival, in front of the child, in a negative way, therefore further impacting a negative mood? I’d loe to hear your input on this issue!

    Parents describing their child’s negative mood, in front of the child? It happens all the time … and yes, I suppose I could write a post about it. Thanks for the idea!

    Comment by carrie | January 25, 2013 | Reply


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