Parenting and Power

Information is power. And children have considerably less information than we do about the world around them.

Information is power. And children have considerably less information than we do about the world around them — including information which is vital for their survival. The power imbalance is total.

What effect does having someone totally dependent on us produce? That depends on, amongst other things, how we were parented ourselves. Plenty of people unfortunately have experienced being the last in the pecking order and have a lot of pent up frustration to get out of their system.

You don’t have to pass it on, though, as a therapist once said to me. It is astonishing how exactly you will replicate your parents as you bring up your first child, if you make no effort to be aware of your behaviour and ask yourself if it is appropriate or if you want to change it. It is also, he said, astonishing how easy it is to choose to act differently the minute you actually realise what you are doing.

I am not sure that it is easy, but it is certainly and hearteningly, (whether that word exists or not!) possible.

So let’s say that we parents don’t feel the need to exercise our power over our children just because we can. We want to respect and empower them. But we still hold all the cards, all the information. Does information in this case really have to be used as power, as in “power over”? Or is it just the fuel for living, which can be a consensual matter, in which everyone is of equal status?

These are far reaching questions. Where there are families who profess to work along the principle of completely equal status and equal say, despite wildly differing amounts of knowledge, I am not sure that they possess average human levels of patience!

Conflicts in families arise not necessarily due to people doing things wrong and needing correction, but quite naturally, due to differing needs. When adults need to leave the house to get things done and children need to stay to finish off their own important business of building a house out of bricks, or whatever, it can take an extraordinary amount of time to organise a solution amenable to everybody. There is also a clash in the ways of thinking: young children are totally in the moment and the kind of overarching “what is best for everybody” thinking is clearly impossible (and developmentally inappropriate?) for them.

If everything is up for discussion, will children feel the sense of security produced by predictable boundaries, that feeling which children who are brought up in chaotic situations so much miss and need? I think they may well do — the boundaries will be there, even if the vast majority of them are up for negotiation. If the negotiation is done properly, it should produce more security, making it feel more safe to voice an opinion and have it heard, rather than less. But what exactly is “properly”, when we are all at totally different stages in life?

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A small step further, what about the feeling of safety you get when somebody bigger and wiser than you, who you trust absolutely, just makes a decision so you don’t have to worry about it? Is this a perfectly natural state of affairs, or the kind of experience which can lead to a lifetime searching for “bigger” and wiser people to tell you what to do?

So many questions. I think that ultimately everything hinges on the parents’ inner attitude and whether, when they make a decision “for the greater good”, they are doing it with a sense of playing God and knowing what is best for everyone, or whether they have the attitude that they are just doing the best they can with the information available. Of course children, even pre- or hardly verbal ones, also have their stash of vital information which parents cannot understand. Their frustration is often painfully obvious.

While there are plenty of parenting guides which praise consistency over all, believing that consistency equals security, I believe that this way of acting leaves a gap which can be felt by children. After all, while bedtime may be consistent, not everything in life is. Sometimes you can get to finish with your building bricks, and sometimes I have to leave and you have to come with me. Sometimes you have to make the hard decision yourself and sometimes I will do it for you. Security comes in the felt quality of the relationship itself: you can count on me to be real and to listen to you and your needs, and to myself and my needs. Life does the rest.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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