I have recently started reading Beyond Time Out by Beth Grosshans, Ph.D. From the very start of her book Grosshans is absolutely clear that she believes many (if not all) of children’s behavioural problems are related to an Imbalance of Family Power. She says this is partly due to the emergence of parenting books and “feel-good” parenting, which encourages parents to put their child’s self-esteem and happiness above all else. Apart from the obvious irony of criticizing the overabundance of parenting books from the pages of a parenting book, it seems that she (and perhaps many other people, too) has completely misread parenting books such as How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. Having healthy communication skills does not mean you are going to succumb to your child’s every whim, and encouraging kids to have an active part in problem-solving does not mean that parent will lack firm boundaries. Nowhere in How to Talk do Mazlish and Faber encourage parents to put their child’s immediate happiness above reasonable discipline.
I haven’t read enough of Grosshan’s book to give it a fair review yet, but it certainly has got me thinking about power. I think Grosshans is right when she says that power is a major player in the parent/child relationship – parents have the power and kids want it. Many parent/child conflicts really boil down to power struggles: a parent needs to get on with their life while taking care of a child and the child expresses their feelings and need for independence by making attempts to gain power. Not every conflict is about power, and it may be true that power struggles have their roots in deeper unmet needs, but the struggle to get or maintain power is a big part of parent/child conflict. It is in my experience, anyway.
Parental power (or lack of it) gets tricky when we talk about Gentle Discipline. What does “gentle” mean when it comes to discipline? Does it mean avoiding the responsibilities of weilding parental power? Does it mean handing an inappropriate level of power over to our kids, so that they are calling all the shots and controlling the family life? I believe that gentle discipline means a parent of young children is something of a benevolent dictator, moving towards a more democratic family life as children grow. Toddlers really do need a parent to be in control, both to ensure their health and safety and to teach them how to behave in society. It’s pretty darn hard to make good democratic family decisions with a pre-verbal child who is developmentally unable to delay gratification. But it is possible to make some good democratic family decisions with school aged kids and teenagers.
Ideally, positive discipline means a parent has the respect and power needed to teach and keep a child safe from harm. That power comes from a strong attachment and foundation of love and respect, and is used for the good of the child instead of the convenience of the parent. I suspect that having healthy parental power and knowing how to use it respectfully is largely dependent on the parent’s own character, sense of right and wrong, ability to delay gratification and powers of self-control. You can’t give what you don’t have, and discipline seems to be mostly about teaching children how to use their own power responsibly.
Edit: My full review of Beyond Time Out is now posted here: Resource Review Thursday: Beyond Time Out