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.
“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!
Jazz and Grace are painting toilet roll tubes. Each of them securely bibbed, their brushes seeped in green paint. They are making Frankenstein’s monster heads, which will become napkin rings for our Halloween party later this week. Each of them has several tubes in front of her, but it is not until we reach the last tube that I realize I have provided them with an odd number of tubes.
Oops. Nine tubes for two girls, means that one girl will get to do ONE MORE tube than the other! This, as you all know, is a toddler catastrophe.
In this case, though, it has an easy fix. We’re going to be cutting the tubes in half anyway, so I’ll just cut the last one in half. Then they can each have one!
“I don’t want you to cut it in half.” Jazz, who finished her last tube before Grace, eyes the now-intact tube. Obviously, she’s working on the “first come, first served” principle, so close in mindset to the other toddler favourite, “finders, keepers”. Neener, neener to you, Grace. That’ll learn you to be so contemplative and careful, immersing yourself in the experience. Serves you right for putting quality above SPEED!
I set a long, level stare on Jazz. “Okay. I won’t cut it in half. I’ll give it to Grace. I’ll give it to Grace, and you won’t get anything. Is that okay with you, or shall I cut it in half?” My tone isn’t hostile, pushing, or sarcastic. Nor am I trying to coax or wheedle. I’m just stating facts. This is What Will Happen, missy.
Jazz recognizes Implacable when she sees it. Her eyes widen, she smiles and nods. “You can cut it in half, Mary!!”
Good on you, kid.
A mother stands in my front hall at the end of the day.
Her daughter reaches for the latch of the front door. Now, this is Not Allowed at Mary’s house. Children are never, ever to open the front door. Never, ever, ever. I shudder to think of the chaos and potential tragedy that could result from children wandering out the door. Most of the time, the screen door is kept locked to prevent escapes, but this is the end of the day, parents are coming and going. The door is unlocked.
Nonetheless, locked or not, the door is Off Limits to the children, and SuzieQ knows this. However, she has obviously weighed our respective authorities (who’s the boss? mummy or Mary?) and our potential to act (who’s standing closer to me?), and figures it’s a risk worth taking. Mother notices.
“Suzie. Leave the door, please.”
Suzie looks at mum, and puts her hand on the door knob. Without breaking eye contact, her jaw set, she carefully places her hand on that knob. OOoooh, the defiance! I’m itching to take action, and I would, I would, were mother not standing between us. But of course, mum won’t let her get away with that, right?
“Suzie. Leave the door and come here, please.” (And I sigh, inwardly. Here we go!)
Suzie unlatches the door.
Now, her mother is within arm’s reach. There is absolutely nothing to prevent mother from stretching out her arm — she wouldn’t even have to lean! — and pulling the door firmly shut. Instead, she merely tosses more words, more pointless words, into the air. Tosses them into the air, where they dissipate into nothingness. Ineffectual, meaningless nothing.
“Suzie. Leave the door.”
Suzie opens the door.
(Gee. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?)
“Suzie. I said leave the door.”
Suzie steps out onto the porch.
“Suzie. I said … oh, okay. Okay, you can go out, but stay on the porch!”
We’ll stop here, shall we? You can see the trajectory. I think none of you will be surprised to know Mum and I didn’t get to finish that conversation.
Suzie’s mother is impressed (and truth be known, I think also a little pissed off, some days) at how readily, and without any fuss, her daughter does as I ask. Had I been standing between Suzie and the door, there is absolutely no way at all that she would have touched the latch.
What’s the difference? Is it that “children always behave better for others than their parents”? Suzie’s mother’s been known to cite the truism.
Oh, puh-lease. No. It’s because Suzie’s mother does not consistently monitor and maintain the boundaries she attempts to set. I do. I do, not just with Suzie of course, but with all the children. I do, because I’ve been doing this for years, because I know the enormous difference it will make and because, as Hannah expressed it so well not too long ago
I do it because I’m in the business of raising adults. I do it because I want these children to become all they can be.
But I also do it because if I didn’t, I would have FIVE children all ignoring me and dashing every which way, doing exactly what they wanted in every moment, all day long. Can you imagine? The chaos, the noise, the screaming, the violence, the mess?
That? Is my idea of hell on earth. Lordy.
If I had issued the directive, Suzie would have dropped her hand. Period. I might, because her mother was there, have gotten a considering look as she weighed the possibility that Mummy might trump Mary, even in Mary’s home, but even so, I am reasonably confident she wouldn’t have. Had mum not been there, there wouldn’t have been a second’s hesitation. The hand would have come down.
Suzie, however, is three and a half, and well schooled. Cast back a year and a half, though. A year and a half or two years. Cast back that far and re-run the tape with an un-trained Suzie.
Suzie stands in the front hall as we all get out coats on to go out. She’s ready first, and reaches for the door.
“Suzie. You don’t touch the door knob, remember? Only grown-ups open that door.”
Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, gives me a considering look and grabs the door knob.
“Suzie. I said no. Only grown-ups open the door.” And as I speak, I move close, lift her hand off the knob, and, if she seems inclined to reach for it again, lift her to a different area of the floor.
Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, would probably kick up a bit of a stink at this point. I suspect it was all the stink-kicking a year or two ago that now prevents her mother from taking firm, decisive action. Mum doesn’t want to provoke a fit. (A wry comment about letting the terrorists win flits through my brain…)
Which is why, when I take that essential firm, decisive action, I reward her with a very warm and sunny “Thank you!” and a distracting task.
“Thank you!” because it’s good manners to thank someone when they help you out. The fact that the help wasn’t voluntary is completely irrelevant. The point here is not to punish her for her attempted disobedience, the point is to teach her a Better Way. So, a warm and sunny thanks. Which very often throws them off their disgruntled emotional trajectory, and they’ll smile right back at you.
And then, quickly, give her a task. “Here, sweetie. Would you give Sam her hat, please? Sam needs her hat so she won’t be cold!”
That usually does it. Usually, but not always. If Suzie were determined to throw her fit, if she refused to be distracted from the joy of rage, then I would move into my standard tantrum response. (If you are interested, check out the Tantrum Series tab at the top right.)
So. Issue an instruction, make sure it’s been heard, then FOLLOW THROUGH. Calmly, firmly, politely, implacably.
That’s it, that’s all. The caregiver’s “secret” to co-operative children.
Follow through, physically if necessary, and it often is at first. (By ‘physically’, I mean hand-over-hand helping or preventing whatever it was, of course. I do not mean spanking. If you can produce considerate, obedient, kind children without it — and you can — why would you?) Follow through despite the protests, despite the tantrum. Follow through, every time, and it will not be long before there are no tantrums because they just don’t work.
I’m sure a lot of the time when I see lack of follow-through, it’s happening because the parent doesn’t want to subject the caregiver (and themselves) to the struggle that might ensue. But please! Don’t fret! Don’t worry! She won’t criticize, she will applaud! Go for it, because I promise you: When you tell your child to do something and then don’t follow through? You are making your caregiver twitch.
“I want to trade dollies with Grace,” Jazz informs me. Grace is right beside her on the kitchen floor. Jazz has a baby doll, Grace has a Groovy Girl. Seems Groovy Girls are the doll to have today.
“I don’t want to trade,” Grace responds, calmly playing with the dolly of desire. Neither girl looks at each other. I could transmit Grace’s response to Jazz, but I would rather teach Jazz to deal direct with Grace. I have no desire to be the intermediary in all their encounters, and why should Jazz want one?
“Well, I don’t have the dolly. Grace does. You need to ask Grace if she would like to trade.”
“I don’t want to trade.” Grace is not alarmed, she is just informing us of her position. She continues to play, not bothering to look up.
Given this, it’s rather surprising when Jazz goes along with my pointless exercise. “Grace, do you want to trade dollies?” Jazz asks, in her best, perky, friendly, let’s-DO-this voice.
“I don’t want to trade.” (Surprise, surprise.)
I look at Jazz, who is standing, staring at Grace as if she’s expecting something more.
“Well, Jazz. What did Grace say?”
Grace answers the question, yet again. Her tone of voice is level and not particularly interested, same as it’s been throughout all this. Her position has not changed. “I don’t want to trade.”
Jazz looks up at me, her face happily alight.
“Her said YES!”
Why fight reality when you can just re-write it?!?
(Her didn’t get that dolly. Mary is such a poop.)
…and Grace, she has such an affinity for the wrong end of it.
Grace. My sweet, gentle, dippy Grace. What is happening to you?
If I had one word to describe Grace, it would be ‘gentle’. She has spent much of her small life so far ‘in the world but not of it’, her big blue eyes not quite focussed on the activity around her, staring off into the middle distance. When she does enter the play or the conversation, she’s most often three beats behind. She has a beautiful, ready smile.
Mostly, Grace is a joy. She’s quiet, peaceable, content to play on her own, content to play with the others. She’s gentle with the other children, she’s affectionate, she’s happy. Grace Plays Well With Others. Three beats behind, perhaps, but well!
Until this week.
There are two armchairs in my living room. One easily fits two toddlers, the other can only fit one. Typically, when the tots pay them any attention at all, Grace and Jazz sit in the big chair, Poppy sits in the other, and Daniel runs back and forth between the two. Up onto Poppy he blunders. Poppy shrieks and shoves him off. Okay, then. Over to Grace and Jazz he goes, attempts to scale the wall of flailing arms and legs and shrieks.
Once in a while Grace or Jazz will feel particularly gracious, however, and one will slide down and let Daniel clamber up. Where he will wriggle and twist and flail and twitch for all of twenty seconds … before sliding down to find something more interesting to do. Because just sitting? In a chair? Is BORING!!! Chairs, Daniel very shortly discovers, are no fun at all.
(He discovers this umpteen times a week, yet it comes as a surprise every time.)
Our story begins at one such moment of generosity. Jazz and Daniel are in the one chair, Poppy in the other. The requisite three beats have passed, though, and Grace, who had been contentedly colouring, notices. Normally, that would mean that Grace would go over and stand by the chair. She would watch and stare. She might whine in my direction, hoping I’ll come and rectify things for her. (The less-attractive extension of Grace’s gentleness is passivity, a tendency to whine about problems without making any effort to resolve them herself.)
Normally she would not charge up to Daniel and say, in a loud and strident voice, “I want to sit inna chair, Daniel. You get down!”
This week has not been normal.
“I want to sit inna chair, Daniel! You get down! Get down, Daniel!”
Of course, in that instant, the chair, the boring chair, becomes the only place in the world Daniel wants to be. Forever! Of course it does. Because Daniel is two. Because Daniel is two and Grace is being rude, rude, rude. His little chin comes up.
“No. I no get down. I stay here.”
Grace leans into his feet, which just clear the edge of the cushion. Leans and thrusts into his face.
“SHARE! You have to SHARE, Daniel!”
I sigh at the cosmic unfairness of it all. Grace’s passivity has been a thorn in my flesh for two years. For two years I’ve been working with her to get her to “use your words”. “If you have a problem, talk to the person, don’t just stand there and cry.” Over and over I’ve encouraged her to take action, to think of solutions, to try alternate approaches. To just stop being so damned passive!!!
“SHARE! You have to SHARE, Daniel!”
No passivity there, no, no, no. Also no manner, consideration, politeness, constructive options, alternative approaches…
I see his legs start to twitch. Purposefully this time. Grace is about to get an almighty kick in the chops if she doesn’t back off. Which she’s not about to do. Though one might argue Grace is currently earning an almighty kick in the chops, it would be unprofessional of me to allow it.
I put one hand on Daniel’s shins, the other on Grace’s shoulder.
“Grace. Daniel does not have to share. It is nice to share, but he doesn’t have to. If you want Daniel to share, you must ask nicely, then wait.” And I walk them through the script. Ask, wait, respond, resolve.
Now, take that event and multiply by eleventy-gazillion. All week, she has been doing this. All week she’d charge up to another child, rip a toy from them, burst into their activity, crowd their space, and otherwise be intrusively obnoxious, and every time they objected, she’d go all, “SHARE! You have to SHARE!!!”
And every time, I’d say that no, while sharing is nice and good, they don’t have to, but what Grace HAS TO DO is ASK NICELY AND WAIT.
ASK NICELY AND WAIT, Grace.
ASK NICELY AND WAIT, dammit.
Every time. How much of that did Grace absorb? How much made it into that pretty little head?
Grace is sitting in the big chair. Jazz approaches and asks nicely to sit with Grace. And then she waits for Grace to speak before climbing into the chair! Jazz has this “ask nicely and wait” thing pretty much nailed. (Well, right now, in this one perfect moment of time she does. Right now, in this one perfect moment of time, I am pleased.) Ask nicely and wait. Well done, Jazz!
Grace says, calmly and with absolute confidence, because hasn’t Mary said it over and over again all week …
“No, Jazz, I don’t have to share.”
I once wrote a post on getting your child to eat their greens “The Devious Way“. In fact, few of the ideas in the post were truly devious. Mostly they were simply indirect: rather than making an issue of it, you assume that vegetables will be eaten. After all, you eat them. Why? Because they’re good!
With persistence on your part, they will come to enjoy their food, all of it. Well, with the occasional exception. No one likes everything. Most people, however, like almost everything.
So I titled that post, “The Devious Way”, and now I wish I hadn’t, because it gives the wrong impression. You don’t need to sneak veggies into your child. In fact, you shouldn’t. It’s a short-term gain, but fails for the long term. If your child remains blithely unaware that he has been eating broccoli for years, then, as far as he is concerned, he doesn’t like broccoli. You may be getting the nutrition into him now, but you are not teaching him lifetime habits by which he’ll keep himself healthy. When there is no one around to sneak the greens into him, he likely won’t be eating them.
Provide vegetables as you do all food types — with the assumption that they taste good and that everyone wants to eat them. Consider this: Odds are good you don’t go all angsty when your child, in a fit of contrariness, refuses pasta. No, you shrug and say “whatever”. You don’t beg and plead, you don’t hide or camouflage it. You don’t fall over yourself coming up with alternatives. You just figure, “Eh, she’ll eat it tomorrow.” And she likely will.
The same holds true with vegetables — well, with all the food groups. Toddlers are faddish eaters. What they loved one day, they will refuse the next. If you’re concerned about your child’s intake, keep track over a week. You will probably find that over the course of a week, he does indeed get a balanced diet. It’s quite likely that, though it appears he’s refusing an entire category of food, that was only on Tuesday and Friday, but the rest of the week, he made up for that lack just fine. You remember Tuesday and Friday because he kicked up such an almighty fuss, or because you stressed out so much over it. The days he ate everything without complaint, you don’t notice so much.
So, most of the time, your teaching is indirect. You model good eating habits. You provide healthy food at sensible intervals. You make sure any snacks are healthy. You allow the occasional treat, but you make sure they’re occasional and portions are modest. Desserts are usually fresh fruit, only rarely gooey, cups-of-sugar extravaganzas. You are just as likely — more likely! — to rave about how delicious strawberries are, or those fresh-off-the-vine peas, as you are to rave about the hot fudge brownie sundae.
If the food culture in your home is “healthy is normal, healthy is DELICIOUS!”, your child will absorb this in time. Now, our culture does not support parents in their efforts. It is possible that you may have to change your own eating habits because you want to do better for your child than was done for you. It is possible that you have allowed poor eating patterns to develop, and now have the daunting task of retraining both your child and yourself. Thus, it is possible that once in a while you will have to play hardball.
Generally speaking, though, your own cheerful enjoyment of healthy food, your firm refusal to provide alternate meals (and certainly not nutritionally inferior alternates!), your calm willingness to let your child choose not to eat, and your ongoing providing of healthy food will produce children who enjoy their food.
All of it.
And mealtimes will be happy, social, friendly, conflict-free events.