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!

January 17, 2013 Posted by | books, parenting, power struggle | , , | 4 Comments

Reasonable Parenting

My clients are reasonable people. For fifteen years, with one or two notable exceptions, I’ve seen lots and lots of reasonable people. And these reasonable people also aspire to be reasonable parents.

“Reasonable” in the colloquial sense, in that they want to be sensible, balanced, measured, common-sense. But also “reasonable” in a more specific sense. They want to raise their child rationally. They want to be the kind of parent who has reasons for what they do, who doesn’t respond in a knee-jerk, reflexive, irrational way to childish flaws and misbehaviours. They will never be the kind of parent who says, “Because I said so, that’s why!” They want to parent with their hearts and their minds.

This is all very laudable. It is how I have always endeavored to raise my own children, how I deal with the daycare children.

This approach, however, has its weaknesses, which most of the parents I’ve seen through the years have not considered beforehand. When they run into them, they are blind-sided. How does a Reasonable Parent deal with this?

One main weakness exists entirely in the minds of the parents. It is not, in fact, a weakness in the approach at all, but rather unhelpful, unexamined — often unconscious — assumptions about Reasonable Parenting.

This weakness arises from their desire to be principled parents. Let me be clear, here: I am ALL FOR principled parenting!! Principled parenting saves you from a world of on-the-fly decisions, rules made up on the spur of the moment when there is no guiding directive to show you the way. Principled parenting provides you with that blessed clue of thread which guides you through the maze of events which are NOT IN THE RULEBOOK, DAMMIT!

Where parents can go off the rails with principled parenting, though, is in the over-application of the idea “I will never be the kind of parent who says ‘because I’m your mother, that’s why!'” In trying to avoid authoritarian parenting — inflexible, uncompassionate, rule- and ego-driven parenting — many of my clients are squeamish about any parenting ‘because I say so’s’.

You know what? Once in a while, it’s totally fine to say “Because I said so. Now do it.” Though you should always have a reason, you do not have to give it every time. It is enough that you are the parent, you treat your child respectfully, and you can expect them to acknowledge this by responding respectfully to an instruction, request, direct order. You don’t do that every time. That would be rude. But to expect, every so often, your child to ‘just do it’, based on 1) your proven track record of reasonable, respectful parenting, and 2) the fact that you are the parent… that’s reasonable.

My clients have a tendency to blur the line between Authoritarian parenting and Authoritative Parenting. There is a world of difference between the two. Authoritarian parenting is hard-line, intolerant, disrespectful of the child. “Because I said so!” is the response to any questioning, no matter how reasonable the question might be. Authoritarian parents may or may not work on principles, but when they do, they are principles which favour the parent’s will, and are unlikely to be shared with the child. Authoritative parenting, while confident, is flexible, compassionate, and respectful. An authoritative parent’s principles focus on the long-term character development of their child. An authoritative parent has rules and expectations, but can be flexible in them. A child is allowed input into parental decisions. The parent is still the authority, but it is a more co-operative, compassionate authority.

Okay, so that’s the flaw in the pre-assumptions which cause Reasonable Parents a world of difficulty. It’s okay — it’s REQUIRED — to make rules and expect the child to obey them. It’s REQUIRED to say a firm and unyielding “no” sometimes. You are not being an unkind, unloving parent when you do these things, so long as you are doing them out of parenting principles rather than a fit of pique. (Which is not to say you can’t lay down the law in accordance with your principles while you are EXASPERATED OUT OF YOUR MIND. Of course you can! You can, you will, and you must.)

The first weakness in Reasonable Parenting, then, is the assumption that it is disrespectful to the child to exert any form of parental authority. Most of my parents would immediately grasp the weakness in that assumption… but many of them stumble over it in practice anyway.

The second weakness of Reasonable Parenting does not exist solely in the parents’ unexamined assumptions. This one is a genuine problem.

Here you are, all prepped and ready to be Reasonable in your dealings with your child. You are going to be rational, measured, sensible. Your emotions will enrich your dealings with your child, but you won’t react in ill-considered emotion. (Yes, I’m kind of smiling now, too. No parent alive will achieve such a paragon of virtuous behaviour at every moment of their life. I know that, and I hope you all know that, too. No beating yourselves up for the times you fall short of pure parental perfection, okay?)

And there you go, being Reasonable with your child… and he is NOT REASONABLE BACK! In fact, she’s positively savage! Shouting, screaming, flailing. No amount of reasonable conversation is bringing him around. Your expectations are reasonable, your demeanor is reasonable, your words are reasonable, and what do you get back?

NO!
NO!
NO!
I WON’T!
DON’T WANNA!
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

In fact, the little cretin may even be taking swings at you while s/he creates this uproar! The Reasonable Parent confronts the Anti-Rational Toddler.

Now what?

That, my friends, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

🙂

February 14, 2011 Posted by | manners, parenting, parents, power struggle | , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments