It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The old power struggle

Almost four-year-old Malli approaches, looks up at me, silken blond hair rounding into curls on her shoulders, enormous chocolate brown eyes gazing up at me. She is a seriously gorgeous child. Her peach-pink lips open.


She wants a glass of water. However, this child will be four in a matter of days. A one-word demand is completely unacceptable. It’s also disrespectful of me. And she knows it. I play dumb. This offers her the opportunity to amend the presentation without making a head-to-head issue of it.


“Water.” She’s not accepting the evasion. I suspect the girl is in conflict-seeking mode. We’ll try it once more.


“Water.” Yup. This looks like a power struggle. She knows the expectation and is saying “piss on you”. Malli is the mistress of the power struggle, after all. However, just in case, after a solid year of knowing the form, she’s having some sort of genuine mental blip, I offer a little assistance. (If we are having a power struggle, as I am 98% sure we are, it’s still a good tactic.)

“What about water?” I blink. My tone is light, expressing genuine puzzlement. I’m giving her no indication at all that she could be getting under my skin. She isn’t really. Or, only a teeny little bit.

“I want water.” All doubts are gone. The child is spoiling for a fight. Maybe she had a squabble with a sibling before she arrived. Maybe her parents made her do something unreasonable, like, oh, put on underwear. But whatever her internal motivation, the happy contentment that has been the ruling mood of the house is NOT serving her purposes. She wants conflict, and she wants it NOW.

She ain’t getting none.

“You want water. That’s nice to know.”

“I want water.”


“I want water.”


“I want water.”

I walk away. She knows what the problem is. I know what the problem is. She wants water, she can ask for it, nicely. She doesn’t need to be told how to ask. She’s been asking nicely for a year. I start to interact with another child, and “ignore” her. “Ignore” in quotation marks, because, having been denied a fight with me, she’s primed to go off and wallop one of the other kids, just to scratch that itch.

She stands at the edge of the group, considering. It’s probably too obvious she’s under surveillance, however, so the other children remain untormented. She brings her cup to me.

“I want water.” She is not yelling, she is not pouting. But she’s also not complying. And I’ve about had it.

I look at her, long and hard. I am no longer pretending not to know what’s up. I maintain a few seconds unblinking eye contact, then spit out the words, one at a time. I am not raising my voice, I am not sneering. But I am totally and utterly implacable.

“Malli. Par.Don ME?”

She pauses. The next step is the Quiet Stair, and she knows it. Does she really want this fight, after all? Or maybe the purpose of the strived-for conflict has already been served: she has asserted for herself once again that Mary is reliable, in control, that the parameters of her world here are secure. It’s a perverse way of establishing security, but she’s not unusual.

And really? Kids who set up power struggles don’t want to win. If they win, the world is a shaky, nebulous, unreliable place. Winning power struggles means the adults around them are too weak to protect them. They are setting us up to prove that we are strong enough to provide their security.

She pauses …

“May I have some water, please?”

Human nature would have me bark at her, “And about TIME, young lady!”, but I suppress my baser instincts. (This whole exercise on her part was to try to annoy so as to provoke conflict. If I allow as to having been annoyed, she will be rewarded for this behaviour. As satisfying as it would be to stamp my feet about now, it would be counter-productive. And besides, after all this nonsense I’m not about to give the little wretch what she wants.)

I’m going to give her what she needs.

So instead, joy. My face, she beams like the dawning sun. No sarcasm, mind. This is (as far as she knows) 100% sincere.

“SURE, I’ll get you some water. Thank you for asking politely.” And I give her a wee hug, kiss the top of that silken head.

Mary, 1
Malli, 0

(And about TIME, young lady…)

May 26, 2008 Posted by | Malli, manners, power struggle, socializing | 10 Comments