So I thought I’d add to the multitude of articles that I see in my news feed making the promise of a special technique to forever end parent-child power struggles. It seems that somehow they’ve all missed the extremely obvious and most simple way to do this, so I may as well point it out, right?
I rarely click on them anymore but I am pretty sure I can guess what most of them would contain. Techniques such as: giving kids a little power over unimportant things to satisfy them, distractions, or utilising their fun-loving nature by making things into a game.
What’s wrong with all of these things? Well, they focus on making things easier for the parent by placating the child instead of addressing what the real issue is. Hence, none of them are going to work for long, because kids aren’t stupid. They know when you’re just trying to appease them and they’ll get sick of those games before long. Then you’re back to square one. Locked in battle.
There is only one thing that can truly work, every time, without fail. I know, a big call right? But honestly, there’s no way for it NOT to work.
So, what’s the one way to end power struggles for good?
STOP STRUGGLING FOR POWER
Stop struggling for power!
You can’t struggle for power against yourself. If you stop trying to overpower your children then there can’t be any power struggles.
Power and control are actually not essential elements to the parent-child relationship. Seriously! You can ditch both of them right now. Exchange them for more peace, cooperation, and mutual respect in your home. Here’s how…
Change your perspective
“We might say it’s our job to be “in control,” in the sense of creating a healthy and safe environment, offering guidance, and setting limits—but it’s not our job to be “controlling,” in the sense of demanding absolute obedience or relying on pressure or continuous regulation. In fact, although it may sound paradoxical, we need to be in control of helping them to gain control over their own lives. The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive.” -Alfie Kohn
Mainstream parenting is based on a control and power dynamic. Parents are often told it is their job to control their children, to force them to ‘behave’, and to ‘teach them a lesson’. But think about it… healthy relationships don’t work that way, do they? We are told that parent-child relationships are a prototype for all future relationships, so we really should consider what we’re modelling.
In no other relationship would the same level of control be endorsed. In no other area of life would unthinking obedience be praised. Children are people, like anyone else. The rules don’t change because of age. This kind of relationship surely has the same negative effects on children as it does on adults.
“We’re unlikely to meet our long-term goals for our kids unless we’re ready to ask the following question: Is it possible that what I just did with them had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my own upbringing than with what’s really in their best interests?” -Alfie Kohn
Luckily, there is a better, more peaceful, more respectful way to relate to children. It requires moving from a ‘doing to’ perspective of parenting to a ‘working with’ mindset. You’re not trying to control your child, you’re trying to connect with them and live together peacefully. You strive to communicate authentically in a way that allows everyone to get their needs met, instead of simply (and ineffectively) trying to control another person so they do what you want.
I appreciate that this might be a really challenging concept! Especially if you’ve always been led to believe that children are untrustworthy, incapable, and needing of adult control. You might instantly fear bringing to life the old saying ‘give an inch and they’ll take a mile’. Images of your child morphing into your own little Veruca Salt might be running through your head. I encourage you to question your assumptions about children, and where they originated from.
In the end, no one can make another person do anything, and making parenting a fight cancels out much of the enjoyment. The truth is, parenting is not about control, but connection. Work on that and you will need no special techniques for ‘power struggles’.
“The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.” – Pam Leo
Hopefully you’re willing to make some changes and your mind is open to thinking about children in a different way. But what do you actually do? How do you stop struggling for power?
Give up these things
“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn’t permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We’re so worried about spoiling kids that we often end up overcontrolling them.” -Alfie Kohn
In our society, we rationalise the use of unnecessary control over children by telling ourselves that it’s ‘for their own good’. Because they are younger and less experienced we think that justifies treating them as inferior (disagree? Please read this).
Children deserve to be treated with no less respect than adults, but it’s so ingrained that it’s really hard to overcome, or even recognise all the little ways that childism seeps into everyday life.
Here are some of my favourite resources for moving away from control-based parenting…
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” ― Jane Nelsen
Punishment is obviously a form of control, but I thought it deserved a specific mention. It does not make sense, and it does not work.
“Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other – on the contrary they breed and reinforce each other.” ― Haim G. Ginott
Punishment doesn’t make a child less likely not to do the same thing in the future, it just means they’ll work on being better at not getting caught. It’s also contrary to the goal of fostering connection with children.
“The problem is that rewards and punishments are really just two sides of the same coin . . . and that coin doesn’t buy very much. Fortunately, there are alternatives to either version of carrot-and-stick manipulation.” -Alfie Kohn
While rewards may seem ‘nicer’, the goal is still control. Rewards, bribes, and praise have also been shown to be ineffective and counterproductive. Rewards are unecessary. If you’re grateful for something your child has done, just thank them authentically!
“My children gave me some invaluable lessons about demands. Somehow I had gotten it into my head that, as a parent, my job was to make demands. I learned, however, that I could make all the demands in the world but still couldn’t make my children do anything. This is a humbling lesson in power for those of us who believe that, because we’re a parent, teacher, or manager, our job is to change other people and make them behave. Here were these youngsters letting me know that I couldn’t make them do anything. All I could do was make them wish they had—through punishment. Then eventually they taught me that any time I was foolish enough to make them wish they had complied by punishing them, they had ways of making me wish that I hadn’t!” -Marshall Rosenberg
It’s quite shocking when you take notice of how people generally speak to children. There is so much micromanaging and demanding, is it any wonder children are fighting for some control over their own lives? Children naturally resist control, and that is a good thing! Move from making demands to requests that children have a choice in, as much as possible! The key to telling the difference is knowing that you are happy for them to reply with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A respectful relationship is not demanding.
“When people hear demands, it looks to them as though our caring and respect and love are conditional. It looks as though we are only going to care for them as people when they do what we want.” -Marshall Rosenberg, Raising Children Compassionately (a great resource for more on this)
What do I do instead?
Move towards respectful parenting and live in partnership with your children instead of as adversaries! You can read more about what respectful parenting is here, but here are some things to start with…
“Unless we understand the potential for connection in each moment of each day, we will miss countless wonderful windows of opportunity for interaction with our children.” -Shefali Tsabary, The Conscious Parent
I can’t emphasise this enough… connection is the key. Punitive, coercive parenting breaks connection which means children are less likely to listen to you or be interested in working things out together! Make it your mission to replace correction with connection and you’ll notice a huge difference.
“Empathy is when a person accurately communicates that they see another’s intentions and emotional state. It means watching our child’s frustration and focusing on how life feels in that little child’s body, while putting our own anger and agenda into the background.” – Andrea Nair
Children have a LOT of feelings, and our job is to help support them so they grow up to be adults who are equipped to recognise and regulate their emotions. Oftentimes, we haven’t experienced a lot of empathy ourselves and so we struggle with the feelings of others. But, as I have said before “every time you dismiss or minimise your child’s feelings, you actually make your job harder. You very rarely succeed at making them stop anyway, and it’s more likely that they will need more support from you in the future rather than less. If you don’t hear the message they are trying to send you, the messenger just gets louder and louder until you do. Children are looking for empathy and understanding. If they don’t get it, they’ll keep trying.”
Whenever you feel the urge to control, turn to empathy instead.
You might also find this post helpful: 10 Things to Say Instead of Stop Crying
Parent with radical acceptance! Let go of preconceived ideas of how children ‘should’ behave, and instead respond to them moment by moment. Understand and accept them for the unique and wonderful individuals that they are instead of trying to change them.
Read about parenting with radical acceptance here.
When you encounter problems or disagreements, work together to find a solution instead of ‘laying down the law’. When I say that we parent without control, people often wonder what that looks like. Read more about what we do instead here.
Focus on YOUR Boundaries
“Conventional parenting experts claim that children feel more secure when their parents regularly “set limits,” which means making rules and establishing “consequences” (read: punishments) for breaking the rules.
But this approach fails to distinguish arbitrary controls from real limitations and authentic boundaries. Life naturally provides plenty of limits without you adding to them.
Parents are supposed to empower their children, not limit them.” -Scott Noelle
Parents are often advised to ‘set limits’ with their kids, but this again puts the focus on ‘doing to’ instead of ‘working with’. Remember, you can’t actually make anyone do what you want so it makes more sense to instead focus on protecting your own personal boundaries. This is a great read which explains this concept more fully.
“Children do not learn from what we say. They don’t even learn from what we do. They learn from who we are. And they’re always watching.” –Visible Child
What do you do when children just refuse to cooperate when you really need them to? Model graciousness. Model what you want to see and trust that you are enough. This post is an absolute must read.
Most of us don’t even know how to identify our feelings and needs, let alone communicate them in an appropriate way. This takes some work, but when you get it, things change dramatically. And, you’re empowering the next generation to grow up with greater emotional literacy.
“Behind intimidating messages are merely people appealing to us to meet their needs. A difficult message becomes an opportunity to enrich someone’s life.” -Marshall Rosenberg
All of these things will make a huge difference in moving away from power struggles, towards more respectful and connected parenting.
But here’s the catch…
These are not a ‘techniques’ to use on your children.
This is a perspective shift and means coming to a new understanding and view of your relationship. Respectful parenting is not something you can ‘use sometimes’, and the goal isn’t what ‘works’ to ultimately get your way and have your children do what you want.
It’s about being equal. No one has power over anyone else. Just as you don’t control your children, they don’t control you. It doesn’t mean letting them ‘do whatever they want‘ at the expense of your needs and personal boundaries. It means making considered choices and honouring their freedom and autonomy as much as possible. It means doing some internal work and challenging assumptions and ‘the way it’s always been done’.
So if you really want to end battles and power struggles…simply stop struggling for power.
It’s not a quick fix, but it’s immensely worth it. When you experience a mutually respectful relationship with your child, and the connection and joy that follows, there is no turning back.