Wise parenting vs. power parenting

While it’s clear that we need to maintain authority over our children, some parents take this idea too far. These parents tend to be legalistic in their parenting. What they say goes, no matter what. Legalistic parenting is characterized by the power we exert over our children rather than the wisdom we bring to the relationship. Be sure to make the distinction between wise parenting and power parenting in your relationship with your child.

A common effect of power parenting is the power struggle.

“A power struggle results when parents fail to exercise their authority wisely. That is, they allow themselves to be forced into a ‘must-win’ situation over a seemingly minor conflict. There will be some early parent/child conflicts in which parental resolve must be victorious, but you should choose well which hill you’re willing to die on. Wise parenting is superior to power parenting,” (p. 228, On Becoming Childwise).

Say you are putting your 3-year-old down for a nap. You do your usual naptime transition and lie him down with a kiss on the forehead. All is sweet but as you walk out of the room you expect a fight. Before you leave the room, your child starts talking and flipping his legs around all over the bed. His mood is anything but sleepy. You turn back around and remind him sweetly that it’s naptime. Another kiss on the forehead. His behavior doesn’t change. Your tone gets tense and angry as you tell him over and over that he must go to sleep. Still no change. He is as hyper as ever. You then physically lift his legs and put them on the bed and under the covers. He quickly removes the covers and starts kicking his legs again. You pinch his lips closed and tell him to be quiet. Your child erupts into a nervous laughter. You continue to remind him to be quiet and physically put his legs back on the bed under the covers. This goes on for 30 minutes before you leave the room frustrated and in a sweat.

This is a power struggle. You are clearly fighting with your child to determine who has power over the situation. When it comes to children and sleep, they are the ones with ultimate power. We can do all we can to help them go to sleep, but whether they actually fall asleep is ultimately up to them.

In such a situation, a wise parent would recognize that a power struggle might erupt and would stop it in its tracks. A wise parent might realize that the child is close to dropping the nap altogether. He sleeps 12 hours at night, so he might not need the nap anymore or his night sleep might need to be adjusted. A wise parent might allow the child to read a book or two in bed before going to sleep. A wise parent might remove the covers altogether to prevent the child from playing with them. A wise parent would realize that giving the child sugar before naptime is a bad idea. A wise parent would be on the lookout for defiant behavior at other times of the day. A wise parent does not give in to the child and let naptime be over just because the child doesn’t want to sleep. Naptime is naptime whether the child sleeps or not.

Here are some signs that you might be engaging in power struggles with your child:

  • You attempt to physically force your child to comply with your instructions.
  • You attempt to exert supreme authority in situations where the child has ultimate control (sleeping, eating, potty training).
  • You say and do the same thing again and again despite the fact that it doesn’t change the child’s behavior.
  • You make a big deal over a minor conflict.
  • You attempt to teach the child when he’s in the throes of a tantrum.
  • The child continues the behavior (and struggles with you) for more than 10 minutes.
  • You end up frustrated and in a sweat.
  • Your threats and punishments increase quickly and the behavior still doesn’t change.
  • You feel like you have lost the battle.

How do you avoid power struggles while still maintaining authority over your child? Wise parenting looks like this:

  • You rely on non-conflict training to teach him what is expected. You teach him clearly and thoroughly before you are in the heat of the moment.
  • You ask your child to tell you what is expected of him. (This is called dialogue questioning.)
  • You consider the context of the situation.
  • You consider the characterization of the child.
  • You watch out for defiant behaviors at other times of the day and potentially reduce his freedoms.
  • You walk away and ignore the child when he attempts to engage you in a power struggle.
  • You remove any sources of contention, where possible.
  • You remove the child from the situation, where possible.
  • You pay attention to your own emotions and simply walk away if you feel yourself getting angry.

So are you a wise parent or a power parent? Be on the lookout for possible power struggles throughout your day and carefully consider how a wise parent might react to the situation.



Filed under parenting philosophy, prevention

9 responses to “Wise parenting vs. power parenting

  1. I have such a hard time with this concept. It sounds so much easier than it is to put into practice! At least I think so. Thanks for all the good examples. Hopefully it will help improve my parenting in this area. The concept of “picking your battles”, which seems a little similar to this, really confuses me like crazy too. I have a hard time figuring out how to do this while “still maintaining authority”. And then I can’t quite figure out what “battles” I should actually be picking! Looking back, the newborn stage really was easier, though not as much fun for me.

  2. I was reading over the comments in the last post and it got me thinking about whining which we are struggling with. I think I’m turning it into power struggles at times. I try saying “uh, uh””shhhh, don’t whine” but my son almost always gets charged up more rather than calmed down then I keep saying “shhh” etc and it gets worse and he will often start to have a tantrum. This happens over things like him wanting to use the spoon, wanting to get out of the pack ‘n play after time out etc. I’m not sure how to deal with this. I’ve been thinking about it the last several days and I thought that I should probably move onto something else (which goes along with what you were saying above I think) if he escalates rather than calms down. What about if he goes into a full blown tantrum with this? Also, it seems like these techniques are not going to help with the whining much. I guess I could use time out with whining, but I’ve been hesitant to do that since I’ve considered his whining to be an emotional issue that he still doesn’t have much control over himself and I dont’ feel like it is punishable then. Maybe I’m underestimating him. I feel like I just can’t get his whining and behavior under control even though I’m trying really hard and he is becoming quite a handful and not as enjoyable to be around. It’s so frustrating.

  3. Salina

    Thanks for reminding me not to be a power parent! I have fallen into that just today and yesterday as I was feeding James and it just wasn’t what he wanted, but I wanted to make him eat it. He is a bread addict, so I have a hard time getting him to eat meat and vegetables if he has any bread. Anyway, we go round and round, but now I know I don’t need to take it personal and get so irritated over something this small. Any ideas on how to be wise about getting him to keep eating right? I worried all night last night because he basically didn’t eat supper because I refused to give him more bread.
    I know how you feel- whining gets to me. I’ve read over and over that the reason they whine is because it works- so I’ve tried to simply ignore it for the most part (pretending I don’t hear him), and if we’re in public I do the hand folding technique for him to get some self control and that has helped.

  4. Maureen


    In response to your first post, perhaps you should think about the “pick your battles” idea in terms of how you respond to a certain situation. You do want him to listen and obey you, but then you don’t want to be disciplining him for every little thing either. See if there’s a better, more positive way to accomplish your goals. Maybe go back to my post on Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Really think through your own thoughts before you give him a command. One of the examples the Ezzos give in the video tapes is wanting a toddler to put on their coat. Gary Ezzo told his daughter over and over to put her coat on and why she needed it on. He went on and on. She ignored him. Then his MIL took the coat and put it on the girl. Sometimes there’s just a much easier, less confrontational way to get our kids to do what we want.

    As for the whining, your best option is to ignore it. Salina is right. If he gets any kind of attention from you, he will keep doing it. Look for opportunities in the day when you have something he wants. I’ve given my example of requiring Lucas to stop whining when he wants me to pick him up. If you have something he wants and he’s whining to get it, hold it out in front of yourself shushing him. Then the second he quiets, give it to him and praise him for not whining. Make a BIG deal out of it.

    If he wants something he can’t have, just say no and walk away. Don’t give any credence to the whining. You can even walk away when he’s sitting in the high chair (buckle him first). Then come back in a minute or two when he seems calm.

    Also try to figure out why he’s whining. Does he seem frustrated? Is there a chance you restrict his freedoms too much? Here’s a quote from page 34 of BW II:

    1. Freedoms greater than self-control = developmental confusion
    2. Freedoms less than self-control = developmental frustration
    3. Freedoms equal to self-control = developmental harmony

    This funnel chapter focuses more on #1 because most parents fall into that category. But if you think you tend towards being more legalistic #2 should be your focus. Have his freedoms increased in the past few months? They should grow as he does. You mention him wanting to use the spoon. Let him have some water play in the high chair and give him a couple spoons to play with.

    When he whines when getting out of a timeout, I wouldn’t pick him up until he stops whining. As he gets older, you will focus more and more on his attitude and having a “happy heart”. You might say something like, “I see you don’t have a happy heart. I will come back for you when I hear you stop whining.” I’m not sure he’s old enough to get this yet, but you get the idea.


  5. Maureen


    I have a picky eater too. William has always been such a good eater so I thought I did everything right. Well, I tried those same things with Lucas and he is just a picky eater. I believe picky eaters are born not created. You need him to have a balanced diet, but you can’t force him to eat either. You have to be smart/wise about it. Here are some things you can do:

    1. Give him what you want him to eat most first. Start with the meat. Then when that’s gone, give him the veggies. When those are gone, give him the bread.
    2. Don’t give him too much food at once. Big portions overwhelm them.
    3. Don’t let him even see the bread before he’s eaten his meat and veggies.
    4. Keep offering the foods he doesn’t like over and over.
    5. Feed him a casserole that has meat and veggies mixed in with cheese and pasta.
    6. Don’t let him fill up on milk. William had a tendency to do this when he wasn’t particularly fond of our meal.
    7. Feed him yourself instead of letting him eat. This works really well with Lucas.
    8. Make sure he’s not too hungry when you sit down to eat. He won’t have the patience to eat what he doesn’t enjoy.

    We ran into this last weekend. We went out to eat and by the time they seated us, it was 7:15. He usually eats at 6:30. I gave him a snack while we waited, but he was still hungry. I have both kids off dairy and wheat right now, so there wasn’t a lot to choose from. I got him salmon, asparagus and french fries. When it arrived all he saw were the fries. He didn’t have the patience to eat the other food. He just wanted to fill his belly on something he knew he liked. We gave him a few fries thinking he would move on to the other foods. No. He ate just fries (and the remnants of a spit-out bite of salmon). It was clearly our fault for not getting there earlier. And I should have asked the server to bring the fries separately. This has happened before. Once he sees the fries, he wants nothing else. We just introduced him to fries about a month ago. Big mistake!


  6. Rachel


    Most of the problem with whining is when he wants something or is feeling frustrated for whatever reason. Sure he gets upset when I tell him “no” etc, but it is pretty easy to just move onto something else. I never thought about walking away from the high chair though which I’ll start doing. Most of the time he’s on the ground so it’s easy to move onto something else or walk away.

    Anyway, what I’ve been doing when he is whining bc he is frustrated or wants someting is say “don’t whine” and then maybe add “tell mommy what you want” and if he doesn’t tell me (point, sign etc) or stop whining after a few seconds I turn my head/walk away until he stops whining. This works so so with him (it’s a work in progress)…although he’ll often start the whining over again when I turn back to look at him and this happens over an over again which I’m not sure what to do with. Sometimes his whining turns into a tantrum and I’m not sure how differently I should be treating this bc it is different than just whining since he lost control of his emotions and I think he needs some support at this time, but at the same time I’m not sure how not to ignore him since he thrives so much on negative attention.

    “If you have something he wants and he’s whining to get it, hold it out in front of yourself shushing him. Then the second he quiets, give it to him and praise him for not whining.” I’ve been trying this for the last several weeks bc I think it is a great way to teach him but it pretty much always results in a tantrum. 😦

    I think I’m giving him enough freedoms, but I’ll monitor that more. I even let him (14 months) use his own spoon 1/2 the time since he is actually pretty good at it.

    Thanks in advance!

  7. Maureen

    It sounds like he’s just very opinionated. πŸ˜‰ It’s like he knows what he wants and is frustrated that he can’t communicate it. In that case, I think you are right to help him communicate it and decipher what he wants. Keep signing and add more signs every day. Lucas picks up on new signs so quickly now. And just keep pulling out the things you think he might want. You don’t want to reinforce the whining, but you don’t want him to think he can’t communicate with you. The whining will escalate. So keep up with the guessing game to figure out what he wants. It doesn’t mean you have give it to him if you don’t want him to have it. Just figure out what he wants and either give it to him or tell him no. This will pass quickly as he starts signing and talking more.

    This could be why holding something in front of you and shushing him is having mixed success. Maybe what you are holding isn’t really what he wants?

    It could also be an issue of patience and self-control. If this is the case, you’ll just have to work on it at other times of the day with playpen time, folding the hands, etc. See if you can figure out his patience level. You’ll want to make him wait, but you don’t want him to wait so long that it throws him into a tantrum.

    Good luck and let me know how it goes.


  8. Rachel

    So if I do find what he wants do you think I should then require him to stop whining before giving it to him (by holding it in front of him or by turning my head away from him/leaving etc). I don’t think I should just give it to him, but I’m afraid he’ll end up in an a tantrum each time! I guess I’ll have to test it out and see.

    I think a lot of it is an issue of patience and self control which is why I am keeping up blanket time even though it is going so badly. He does LOVE independent play though. I think he has a hard time controlling and understanding his emotions. When he starts to get frustrated about something it’s like no matter what I do helps, and he doesn’t seem to be able to function enough to even sign at the time. Poor guy! I’ll give you an update later on how things are going. Thanks so much!

  9. Pingback: Achieving first-time obedience « Childwise Chat

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