Parenting is probably the hardest job we will ever have. Most parents don’t want to admit failure. Consider the qualities you want your children to have, asking yourself whether what you’re currently doing will ensure they have them. Our tendency is to focus on behavior rather than the whole child.

We all have expectations: of ourselves, of our work and, most importantly, of our children. Yet, are the expectations we hold realistic? How do we give children the power they want while maintaining appropriate discipline? How can power struggles be avoided when children are demanding or defiant? How can balance and cooperation be achieved? All great questions, compiled from different parents’ and teachers’ input, to be addressed over the next few weeks. The goal is to move from power struggles to problem solving, transforming conflict into cooperation, both at home and in the classroom.

When parents and teachers lament, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” it is typically because “everything” is either at one end of the spectrum or the other — either yelling, threatening, punishing OR giving in, giving up, giving over the power. Rewards are offered in an attempt to avoid or stop unwanted behavior. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a problem with rewards. These are external motivators, teaching extrinsic learning, which means the motivation is driven from “outside.” Therefore, this only works when the external factor or benefit is present, while we “dangle the carrot” in front of her/him, at least as long as our child wants it. Yet the reward system undermines intrinsic learning, teaching our child to behave appropriately, to do the right thing, because it feels good internally.

Our traditional approach supports the belief that children are manipulative, that they are only out to get what they want, requiring us to train them with behavior modification to behave appropriately. Further, this approach suggests children want all the control and will struggle to take it away from the parent or adult. We believe that when children don’t do well, it’s because they don’t want to, they’re unmotivated and don’t care. Therefore, rewards and punishment are necessary. The problem with this traditional approach is we are focusing on behavior only, with rewards and punishment being the external driving force. Children will behave as long as they want the reward and fear the punishment.

Thus, the transformation comes with moving from traditional methods of parenting to collaboration, from power held to power shared, from punitive adult to partner, from having it our way to finding a middle ground, from disconnection to connection. If we fear that balancing power means losing authority, think about the best authority figure you’ve known and respected. Did this person exert power by demanding and controlling you or by trusting and respecting your perspective, including you in decision-making, brainstorming options? We want to strive to be the authority that supports, inspires, teaches children to imagine, be creative thinkers, to problem solve. When we need to win, to have our child lose, we’re rendering him powerless. With this imbalance of power, our child will look for ways to seize it, leading to power struggles. We then become two children the same age fighting to score.

It is our judgments and perceptions — our assumptions — that lead us to screaming and criticizing, without being heard. When we look at the assumptions we’re making, realizing they are a subjective “spin” we’re imposing on the situation, we can then appreciate they are only our perceptions, rather than the facts. Our fear of losing control will block us from connection, from building trust and emotional safety for our children. An example: When my children were little, breakfast each morning was always a time of wild activity, noise and intensity. Everyone had to be out the door by a certain time, with my children wanting to stay in their pajamas, to play and transition into the day at her/his own pace. “Would you like eggs or porridge?” was my typical question when they came downstairs. While one child might accept that choice, another would demand, “I want donuts” or “ice cream” (choices to which my loving father exposed them when they visited their grandparents).

My son often refused to agree to the choices I offered. For a while, we would unravel in a power struggle, with me adamantly denying him what he wanted. While he became more upset, I wondered why he couldn’t simply get with the program! Then I realized I could connect with him by offering in fantasy what he couldn’t have in reality. Making the shift when he declined my breakfast choices, I replied, “What if a helicopter came zooming into our kitchen now, dropping loads of donuts all over the place? What kind of donuts would there be?” His eyes grew big, with him quickly joining in the game. I added, “And imagine our fridge is chocolate ice cream, the dishwasher another flavor!” He excitedly exclaimed, “Yeah, our whole kitchen is full of strawberry and chocolate donuts. We can eat as many as we want!” My daughter also jumped into the fun, redesigning our kitchen into a magical place. Bingo! We had managed to circumvent our morning power struggle, with me no longer digging my heels in about the limiting breakfast choices. Instead, I shared his lens without judgment or criticism. He felt heard, understood, and began working with me to accept more healthy breakfast selections, while playfully imagining sweet indulgences! That approach worked for a while before we had to devise another one. The important lesson was connecting to the emotional root of his behavior, letting him know I understood he didn’t like breakfast or the need to get dressed and leave the house in the morning. As long as I empathized with him, hearing his resistance, the morning routine became much easier, calmer. Once I accepted my responsibility in holding the negative assumption that his behavior was about making our lives more difficult, I could then assume a different approach.

Negative assumptions necessarily lead to angry, resentful feelings and reactions. Reframing those assumptions can lead us to compassion for ourselves and our child, which is the place where change begins. Doesn’t compassion feel better? Try identifying and then reframing those negative thoughts, honoring your own needs as well as your child’s, and finding the balance. Step into your 

power, allowing your child to step into hers.

As Jane Nelson so aptly stated: “Where did we ever 

get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?” 

More on this next week.