Most information I’ve come across about parenting, whether in conversations, online, in books and magazines, or through TV and movies, promotes an “us versus them” attitude: adults versus children. Even when it isn’t mentioned explicitly, it’s there. A quick web search turns up articles such as these from popular parenting sites: “Get Your Kid to Stay in Bed”; “15 Foods All Kids Should Eat”; “Don’t Buy These Video Games”; “How to Deal with Defiant Kids”; “How to Keep Your Cool When Your Kids Push Your Buttons”; and “How to Deal With Your Preteen’s Messy Bedroom”. As you read those headlines, can’t you just feel the pervasive undercurrent of power struggles? Of pitting parents against their children?
What if you don’t presume power struggles are inevitable?
Moving away from the paradigm of adults versus children is really helpful in allowing unschooling to flourish. Why? Well, what are some of the things you begin doing more of as your family moves to unschooling? One would be moving away from telling your kids what to learn and focusing more on diving into what they find interesting. Another would be opening up every day situations for further discussion and giving them more opportunity to make choices. Both of these are examples of moving away from adults exerting power over children to control them.
This can be thought of as us adults handing more power over to our children. And though that image is a step closer, it still leaves us with an image of “us and them”; just with the tweak that we’re looking to balance the power between the adults and children in the family. That can be tricky to implement though, and sometimes parents can overcompensate. Giving the children more power than the adults in the family is not better—it can lead to children that feel entitled regardless of the situation.
What if we remove the “us and them” dichotomy as well?
Instead of thinking of our relationships with our children as an exchange of power, where one side has more or less power than the other, or trying to balance power between them, drop the idea of sides altogether.
We don’t need to drop the concept of power. After all, power is just a representation of what we can accomplish. To feel powerful is to feel strong and capable of action. What we can drop is the overtone of power *over* others. Most adults do feel more powerful than children because they have more experience and feel more capable in many situations. That’s natural. But instead of using that power advantage to control our children, we can use it to work together as a family in support of each other.
What if we envision our family as a group—one powerful team?
Sure, the children will have less power to contribute, certainly when they are younger, but that’s not a surprise, is it? They are children. It’s not about everyone being equal; it’s not about giving my children as much power as I have. It’s about showing them how powerful we are when we all act *together*. Acting together in support of each other helps everyone in the family feel supported and loved; they feel safe because they have the power of their family behind them. Even when a child isn’t able to contribute concretely towards a sibling’s or parent’s goal, they can still actively contribute by being emotionally supportive, and by not putting up barriers.
What do I mean by that? If a child feels powerless in a family, there’s a good chance they will try to exert what little power they feel they do have to thwart others in reaching their goals: take away someone else’s power to increase their own. Jill wants to play her video game? Adam might try to frustrate her in all sorts of ways: playing loudly in the room; running in front of the TV; tossing toys at her—all in an attempt to get an explosive reaction. The power in the air is almost tangible. These kinds of power struggles can play out over and over, day after day.
Remember though, when kids are younger this might happen innocently enough because younger Adam wants to play with Jill and doesn’t yet realize that while trying to meet his needs, he’s actively impeding hers. When parents see this happening they can engage Adam in other activities. Jill will appreciate the support in meeting her needs, and Adam gets and appreciates the attention and engagement he was looking for. And in short conversations and observations with Adam over time, he will begin to understand and incorporate the perspective of others. And during a quiet moment, explaining Adam’s perspective to Jill will also help her better understand the situation (meaning that Adam’s motivation isn’t to frustrate her but to meet his wish to play).
Building that kind of supportive relationship with your children allows them to feel more comfortable in the family, to trust that their needs and wishes will be fully considered. From there they don’t feel the need to exert power over others, to feel powerful by frustrating others.
But what about when your children’s needs are at cross-purposes? How might you go about working with them to find a path forward that supports everyone? What might it look like when we work together as a team, as a family?
Let’s play with an example using some of my personal experience. If one of my children says they want to visit the science center soon, I’d likely say “Let’s go check out the calendar.” Together (usually, or I’d look myself if they were busy) we’d see what days we are free in the next week or two (my kids are older now and often they’ll check the calendar first before proposing plans). From the possibilities, we’d figure out if they have a preference, discussing that a bit so we could prioritize the available days.
Then I’d ask my other kids if they were interested in coming too. Note that I don’t ask my child to ask their siblings—I figure out the family logistics in support of them. I have more experience with their different personalities and interests and can more quickly, and successfully, work out possibilities with them. Over the years they have all seen me in action countless times, figuring out plans, and definitely use that skill themselves now.
If everyone wanted to go, we’d have a quick discussion about which day, choose one, and mark it on the calendar. If one or more of the other kids didn’t want to go, we’d keep digging. If they, and I, were comfortable with them staying home on their own, I’d confirm they were fine with that, and they’d look forward to having the run of the house while we looked forward to the Science Centre. When they were younger, I’d likely check with my husband to see if he was planning on working from home one day in the next week or so. Or we’d make it a weekend (usually more of a last resort because weekends are typically busier at attractions). Or I’d ask my mom if she’d like to come over and hang out with the stay-at-home child while the rest of us went. Or if she’d like to meet us there—sometimes the previously uninterested child was happy to come and spend some time with Grams. Sometimes one of the kids was less interested in the exhibits, but chose to come because the cafeteria pizza was surprisingly good and they wanted to eat lunch there. If that was the case, they’d bring their handheld games to play, or music to listen to while others explored the exhibits. Or maybe they were interested in the store and we’d plan to spend more than the usual amount of time in there during that particular visit.
My goodness, there are just so many ways it could go! So many ways it did go over the years. One thing that wasn’t questioned though was somebody’s wish to do something. Sure, somebody might ask why the other person wanted to do or not do something, and sometimes minds changed with further discussion, but doing our best in the end to meet anyone’s wishes was a given.
I think the key was, and is, to keep an open mind and use the conversations with my children to incorporate their ideas; not to try to convince them to agree to any plan I had already formed in my head. If I’m listening politely and waiting for an opening to add a “but”, then I’m not really hearing them. That’s a clue to me that it’s time to take a breath, or a break, or whatever helps me drop my preconceived solution, drop my urge to try to use my power to control the situation, and start fresh.
Another really interesting outcome I’ve seen is that children that feel fully supported, that feel the power of their family behind them, become much more discriminating in their wishes. Life isn’t a constant barrage of this and this and this with little rhyme or reason. That doesn’t mean I always understand why they want to do or have something, but that I trust they are motivated by a real need or want. Even if there were times over the years when their motivation may have been more frivolous, they saw me take their wishes seriously and do my best to meet them, and that built their trust in me.
Think of the reverse situation. If children are used to only some of their needs and wants being considered and fulfilled by their parents, they take that into consideration moving forward. They’re smart! If they are used to, say, only one in five of their requests being taken seriously, they’ll be sure to ask for five in hopes of getting at least one. And to get to those five, they are likely asking for some things that would be fun, but aren’t particularly necessary in their eyes. What is necessary is getting *something*. Some attention, some consideration, some feedback that says they are important. Some power. In that situation they can come across as needy because they always seem to be asking for something. That worries the parents and they may feel they need to say no more often so their child learns “they can’t have everything”, so the percentage of needs met falls even further, prompting the child to ask for more again, and so on. It can quickly become a downward spiral. From there, recovery of that trust and relationship may take a while, but it’s definitely worth it.
Feeling powerful is, well, empowering! Imagine how wonderful your children will feel knowing they have the power of their family behind them. Tossing the parents versus kids attitude found in many parenting discussions and being careful not to use our power as parents over our children to control them, but rather to throw behind them and support them as they live and learn, will go a long way toward creating a joyful family atmosphere for both parents and kids that will last a lifetime.