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


  1. I love these little stories, excerpts into life with allll those toddlers.

    Comment by Carly | May 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. Ha. This is exactly what we have to do around here now and then, though it usually only takes one or two repetitions of “excuse me?” to get it, because Pumpkinpie, like Malli, knows what is required. On occasion, though, we need to remind after the pretending not to know what she’s after, “That’s not how you ask for things…”

    Yesterday, though, our neighbour’s child, who is way less verbal and about 8 months younger (and also bilingual, so slower for now on words still), was lurking beside me and my bowl of orange smiles, obviously wanting one. For him, I ignored him until he at least identified in words that he wanted one, but didn’t make the issue of the whole sentence. I think it was hard enough for him to spit out, “want a orange” instead of shoving his grubby paw in my bowl or just hovering until I handed one over. Maybe by the end of the summer…

    With another child, I’d have provided the prompt, but once I’d determined this was a genuine power struggle, there was never any doubt she knew what was required. With a younger, and/or less verbal child, you accept less. “Water!” is perfectly acceptable in a child with a 30-word vocabulary; “water, please” in a child with 50. As you illustrate so well, you tailor your expectations to the capabilities of the child.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. Squiffany demanded an apple from her mother, who refused as she was not polite. I whispered “say you’re sorry and ask properly, then Mummy will think about it.” “Please may I have an apple, mummy, sorry.”

    “What are you saying sorry about?” asked her mother. “Sorry I was so rude, Mummy, may I have an apple” with a winsome smile.

    This was not being polite, we all knew, it was just Playing the Game. It worked though, as it made us all smile.

    Ah, but so much of politeness is a game, isn’t it? At least she understands the rules and form. You don’t always feel genuine interest in/empathy for another’s doings; you can express some, anyway. And who knows? They may just turn out to be interesting and/or compelling, and then the game will become reality.

    Comment by Z | May 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. Ah yes, the power struggle. Malli reminds me very much of my Queen Bee, although Queen Bee would have eventually resorted to some serious screaming and foot-stomping over “You KNEW what I wanted!” Not that the screaming and foot-stomping would have gotten her anywhere, but the child just hates it when I win a power struggle. Plus, I’m her mother, not her caregiver, and although she might provoke a power struggle with her regular caregiver, I think she would save the really big guns for Mom.

    Sometimes is it hard to resist a little smirk when they finally concede defeat? I know I shouldn’t feel smug about defeating a preschooler in a battle of wits, but some days these little power struggles are the most intellectually stimulating part of my day.

    Oh, I often get a surge of satisfaction. I don’t see it as a battle of wits, though (which, you’re right: you should expect to win), but as a battle of wills — and the outcome of that is far less a given. There are few things more strong-willed than a toddler, because a toddler is single-minded. An adult might care about appearances, might be trying to live up to a higher principle, might be balancing competing interests. The toddler does none of that. The toddler just wants what they want, dammit, and WHY AREN’T YOU GIVING IT TO ME?!?!???!

    Comment by mamadragon | May 26, 2008 | Reply

  5. We went to Grandma’s house this wekeend, as did another grandchild. He is 6, and has absolutely no idea that the world doesn’t revolve around him. Since his parents don’t require (what I consider) politeness, Grandma doesn’t either. He is very quiet and non-confrontational, so most people don’t even understand what annoys me so much. But just yesterday, he walked up to Grandma, held out his play-doh and said “I can’t get the lid off.”

    If my 4 year old daughter had done that, I’d have answered with “That’s interesting” And she would have known that she needed to ask for help. It only works sometimes with my 2 year old. 2 year olds sometimes fight just because they haven’t had a good one lately, it seems.

    “Sometimes fight just because they haven’t had a good one lately.” LOL Yup, that about sums it up! Contrary little critters, aren’t they? Good thing they’re cute as the dickens…

    It’s tough to be in a family situation and be biting your tongue… But if I were the gramma, I wouldn’t bite my tongue. I’d let the child know what grandma expected. I highly doubt I’ll be put in that position, though: having essentially grown up in a daycare, my kids are VERY good with toddlers! Does this mother’s heart good. πŸ™‚

    Comment by ktjrdn | May 27, 2008 | Reply

  6. You know I want to print all of these out just to reference at a later date. Jeffrey’s power struggles are mostly about Mama dropping whatever she is doing to read him a book. And while I love that he loves books and even more so that he reads them cuddled up with me; darn it, you do not demand it of me. Argh. And now he’s at grandma’s for two whole weeks to be spoiled. Hopefully she’ll keep him in line.

    I strongly encourage mothers to cultivate what Burton White calls a “healthy selfishness”. It is essential that children know that others have needs, too. They will never really ‘get’ this if the adults around them drop everything to serve them the second they demand it! “Wait a minute”, “not right now”, “when I’m finished” are all perfectly reasonable things to say to a tot — even if what the parent is doing is a non-essential task, done only for parental enjoyment!

    Comment by Dani | May 27, 2008 | Reply

  7. Boy, does that sound familiar! Maya’s got the polite thing down most of the time (the unprompted thank-yous make me warm all over), but man, when she doesn’t do it, it’s just like Mali. Then again, she’s the same age.

    Our current issues are whining (which I need to be more consistent about completely ignoring, yuck) and grabbing my arm to drag me off (usually for a snack, just now for “dance with me!”). I’ll dance with her, sure — but not right. this. second! Oh, and not when it’s demanded in a nasty tone of voice.

    I keep hearing that 4 gets easier. Is this true?

    Yes. πŸ˜€

    Every year gets easier — until, oh, 13 or 14, then all heck breaks loose for a couple of years, but by 16 and 17, they’re back to human again.

    Comment by Allison | May 27, 2008 | Reply

  8. “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”

    Oh if only more parents could grasp this, this world would be a much nicer place:-)

    LMB is currently in much the same place as Mali. Georgous brown eyes and an ability to snuggle/cuddle/kiss you just at the moment you are ready to shake her have got her a long way towards getting her own way.

    When she tells me “I want water” I acknowledge it with a “do you?” and go back to whatever I was doing. Sometimes I have to remind her to ask properly, but mostly she knows what she is supposed to do. She’s doing it for reasons of her own, not because she doesn’t know! If I caved in, I would be encouraging her not only to be impolite, but to regress in her vocabulary & social skills.

    It always surprises me that people can sincerely deny that children are/can be manipulative! That’s sentimentality, which confuses ‘innocence’ with ‘inability to indulge in normal human vices’. The manipulation may not be conscious, but they are very good at tuning in to emotional ebbs and flows, and quickly learn what’s effective to get them what they want.

    Comment by juggling mother | May 27, 2008 | Reply

  9. Hi Mary, do you offer advice?
    My baby boy is nearly 16 months old. What is reasonable to expect from him by way of manners and discipline? When I say, don’t bang toys on the TV, and he does it anyway then smiles and hands me the toy to put on top of the TV (this is the punishment for banging toys on the TV). Do I continue with saying no and removing the toy as he will often just get another one and another one, until five or six have been confiscated, or do I ignore it, thus not making a fun game of it and hope he will outgrow it?
    Thanks in advance

    Comment by Tammy | May 30, 2008 | Reply

  10. I love this blog. Write a book on parenting and I think I’ll have to buy two copies.

    Comment by Carol | June 5, 2008 | Reply

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