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.

Eye contact

I cannot stress enough how important it is to get eye contact from your child. Imagine how you feel when you are talking to your spouse and he doesn’t look at you. Sure, maybe he hears what you say, but is he truly listening? When my husband does this and I ask him if he’s really listening, he will repeat back the words I just said verbatim. It’s great that he can hear me while not looking at me, but is he truly listening and thinking about what I’m saying? Probably not. And perhaps more important, his lack of eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. (Fortunately, he doesn’t do this too often.)

The same is true of your interactions with your child. Do you really expect him to listen to you and obey your instruction if he isn’t looking at you while you give it? While an adult is potentially capable of listening without giving eye contact, a child is not. Children tend to focus on one thing at a time. If they are occupied with a toy and not looking at you, they are not listening to you.

Not requiring eye contact is one of the biggest mistakes of the threatening, repeating parent. It is very easy for your child to ignore you if he doesn’t look at you. It is then easy for you to escalate your demands and threats–not to mention your volume. Your child will then tune you out and you get absolutely nowhere. You may end up disciplining your child and you both end up stressed out and in tears. You could find yourself alternating between giving a consequence, repeating your instruction, his continuing to ignore you, more consequences, his lack of focus on the task, etc. You could keep at it for hours–if you haven’t given up by then–and still see little to no progress. Requiring eye contact is such an easy fix to this problem. It’s quick and it starts you off on the right track.

In addition, a lack of eye contact can often mean that a bigger issue of disrespect is at play. Above I mentioned how my husband not giving me eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. It could be that your child isn’t giving you eye contact because he doesn’t think you are worth listening to. If you are a threatening, repeating parent, your child likely has little to no motivation to look at you or engage in your conversation. If you spout out idle threats and never follow through with what you say, he won’t respect you or take you seriously. He has learned that what you say is not what you mean. He expects you to offer idle threats and start yelling. Who would want to listen to that?

By contrast, a child who offers eye contact regularly is more likely to be obedient. The eye contact shows a respect for your authority and a willingness to obey your instructions. In addition, the child who gives regular eye contact is a pleasure to be around. He is comfortable looking into anyone’s eyes and will even initiate a conversation with another adult.

If you are in the beginning phases of the training process, you may need to physically lift your child’s chin to make him look at you after you call his name and require a “yes, mommy”. If he resists you lifting his chin, you may need to get down on his level and hold his face while you speak to him. Be sure to keep your demeanor calm and don’t manhandle him. If he expects you to be contentious, he will resist you for sure. Don’t let it become a power struggle. If you feel yourself starting to get angry, walk away and work on your anger next time. And by all means, do not give your instruction until you have achieved eye contact.

Even now, after training William for a year and a half in these techniques, there are times when I have to remind him to give me eye contact. When I call his name, he will automatically say “yes, mommy” but sometimes it is so rote that he forgets to look at me, especially when he is engaged with some toy. All I need to do is simply say “eyes” and he will look at me. I don’t repeat his name. I don’t give my instruction. I don’t escalate into threats and anger. I will say just the one word until he looks at me. As soon as he looks at me, I know I have his attention and can move on to giving him my instruction.

If my instruction takes a minute or two to explain, I don’t let him take his eyes off of me until I have finished with my explanation. If the TV is on or for whatever reason he has a hard time maintaining eye contact, I will verbally remind him or gently hold his chin until I am done.

Also, offer your child the same courtesy. If he engages you in conversation, look in his eyes to show him that you think his words are meaningful and that you understand what he is saying. Even if your toddler is speaking gibberish, look at him. You are teaching him the value of eye contact, respect for others and the simple mechanics of having a conversation.