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.