The Texture Of Things

Power, One Kind of

September 3rd, 2007

Standing in the shower thinking
About what makes a man
An outlaw or a leader
I’m thinking about power
The ways a man could use it
Or be destroyed by it …
I’m standing in the shower thinking
–Jane’s Addiction, from Nothing’s Shocking

I have been thinking about power lately. Again, I should say. It’s not a subject that strays far from my mind, especially as I have a child, and whose power is more pervasive than a parent’s?

For me, the nature of a parent’s power is troubling because the forms it takes are so arbitrary. While the tot was less than a year old, I attended a La Leche League group in a neighboring university town known for its crunchy hippies. I was surprised to hear, then, one of the crunchiest experienced moms in the following conversation.

Mom of Toddler: He wants to be independent, but he just melts down when it’s time to make a choice.
Crunchy Experienced Mom: Offer him two choices only. Take all other options away so he’s not overwhelmed.
MT: How do I pick which two when there are plenty?
CEM: Just pick two randomly. It doesn’t matter which. He just wants to exercise the power to choose. You have to make it a choice he can manage.

Let me clarify that I do not think CEM was wrong – she was offering advice to help mitigate age-appropriate tantrums – but it got me thinking that day about my Option C child. You see, when I applied CEM’s advice with a 14 month – 2 year old Tot, this is what it looked like:

Tot [in car seat, happy]: Want music! Wanna listen to music!
Me [rummaging through cds in van, finding Wiggles, Laurie Berkner, Backyardigans, Cow Songs, and a billion more]: Okay, we have Wiggles or Cow Songs.
Tot: Laurie Berkner.
Me [to myself]: Crap. Did she see them? No, she couldn’t have seen them up here in that bin.
Me [aloud]: We have Wiggles or Cow Songs, sweetie.
Tot: :tantrum:

Everyone with whom I have talked about power agrees with CEM: a parent’s job is to assume power and use it. My question has always been, “What if I don’t care?” What if I don’t care what music we listen to? What if I suggest Wiggles or Laurie Berkner but the tot suggests They Might Be Giants and suddenly that sounds good to me too? Holding my ground in this exchange will only serve to make us both unhappy, so why must I be unwilling to surrender some power and be open to her ideas? Is it solely for the sake of teaching her that adults wield power for the sake of wielding power?

That’s crazy talk.

I could be walking into a minefield by approaching parenting this way, but it seems to make more sense to me to teach my child about authentic power rather than arbitrary power.

For instance, this weekend I bought two boxes of Whoppers, one regular and one strawberry. She wanted to play with the boxes on Saturday and I let her. She asked me to open them so she could eat them. She has never eaten one yet, and as excited as I was to think she is interested in melty things, I told her no. No, we cannot eat candy right now because it is breakfast time. She protested. I said that we get to eat enough treats between lunch and bedtime. We could certainly wait until then to eat them. Of course, come afternoon her interest waned. Then first thing Monday morning she asked for them again and my answer stayed the same. She pouted and went on with her day.

Having a reason behind the “no” is authentic power.

When the tot behaves herself and is good about getting into her car seat, she is rewarded by getting to choose the music in the car. She knows I keep a pretty good stash in the van and I am pretty easy going about what we listen to. So it’s fairly common for me to offer this, that, or the other thing and for her to request a different other thing. I say, “Really?” and she repeats herself, I put it in the stereo and we’re on our way.

Letting go of power-for-power’s-sake is authentic power.

If she asks for Cow Songs and I’m really burnt out on Cow Songs, I tell her. I tell her, “No, sweetie, Mama’s tired of Cow Songs. Can we listen to Giants? Or Backyardigans?” Usually she’ll fuss but pick something else. If she does it without flipping out, I’ll comply with her second request. If she flips out, she knows we will listen to nothing. She knows this because I have meted out this consequence a billion times and I make it clear each time: “Settle down and take a breath. If you don’t like these choices, then we’ll turn it off for now.”

Applying power consistently is authentic power.

For another instance, this weekend we went to the nearby outlet mall to catch the Labor Day sales, and the tot asked me for a snack. I peeked into the bag and told her we had pretzel sticks or Ohs (cheerios). She replied, “Kix.” (WTF? We don’t even have Kix at home right now.) I said, “Sorry, Bubba, I’ve only got pretzel sticks and Ohs. Which is it?” She thought for a moment and chose the Ohs.

Being honest about the reason for exercising power is authentic power.

There is so much literary pollution on the topic of parenting that when I got pregnant, the only independent thought I could muster before becoming thoroughly overwhelmed with the reading was this fundamental piece:

I want my child to trust me. She might not always love me, but I want her to trust her father and me, if nothing else.

In order to get to that place, I feel like I have to let go of the ways power was used in my family when I was growing up. Surely I am not perfect and I often resort to how I was taught, but I am trying to be realistic and logical as I consider how my actions now affect the journey.

This is by no means a complete essay on my thoughts about power. I have more notes, but rather than waiting until I have time to write the whole beast, I will post this and return to it with more.


  1. coffeypot says

    You mean that answering the question “why?” when you say no by saying, “Because I said so.” doesn’t’ work? Well, I found out that just standing toe to toe, looking straight down on the child with a miniature ball bat in one hand and slapping it in the palm of the other hand a good show of power. And I love to send them to the ‘fridge for a cold beer, or have them pull off my shoes and socks for me, or going outside for the paper and the mail is a very good way to exercise power. They learn all this before they are even potty trained. That way, the only choice they have to make is “do it” or “get it.” Want me to baby-sit for you?

    September 4th, 2007 | #

  2. KLee says

    I agree with you about not lording your “power” over the little ones, just to demonstrate your power. That’s having power for power’s sake – not for reasons that keep your child safe, or teach them responsible ways to act in society.

    As for your comment that you know your child may not always like you, but at least they will know to TRUST you — that says it all right there. They may not always like the limits that we place on them, but once they understand the reasons why, the appreciate it more.

    I have seen far too many kids who do not get this kind of care at home, and the Tot may not like you asserting your authority right now, but you ARE doing the right thing. I swear.

    September 4th, 2007 | #

  3. Steph says

    it’s not fair that you should be this smart *and* this articulate–seriously, woman, leave some for the rest of us.

    and i have to say, if the above is any indication of your approach to Tot-rearing as a whole, then in my opinion that’s one lucky lil’ tater you’ve got there.

    September 11th, 2007 | #

  4. Jennifer says

    Hi, I followed a link here from your comment left at Andrea’s (Garden of Nna Mmoy). I see you wrote this awhile ago & I don’t know you a’tall, but I’ll comment anyway.

    I don’t think raising a child is about power — at least, not any more than driving a car is about having power over pedestrians. What if instead of discussing what song to play, you and your child were discussing whether or not she can play in the street? Or pee on the floor? Or chop carrots with a knife? It’s the adult’s responsibility to keep the child safe, and if that results in a tantrum, so be it.

    Between any two people there’s constant negotiation of who gets their way at what point. If you want to listen to a Beck CD and your friend wants to listen to the radio, then you’re going to have to negotiate a compromise, and you’re going to have to do so without throwing a tantrum… Giving your child only two choices is one way of negotiating. If she says no, I want option 3, then you either concede or you negotiate further. First Beck, then the radio, for example. It’s hard to negotiate with a toddler — but that’s because she doesn’t know how to do it yet. You have to teach her.

    Also: sometimes you interrupt a task in order to help your child. And sometimes your child has to stop playing in order to help you. That’s not power-play. That’s mutual respect.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

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