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Power, Parenting and Gentle Discipline

beyond time out cover imageI 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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lauren @ Hobo Mama July 19, 2010, 1:09 am

    Sam and I were just talking about power today, and how often with gentle discipline people don’t understand the mindset. There’s a false dichotomy that’s often spoken of in discussions of discipline, of the dictatorial authoritarian vs. the spineless jellyfish, and then there’s some ideal in the middle that’s firm yet fair, but almost always in these discussions, gentle discipline is lumped into the jellyfish category.

    But I think a couple things about this: First of all, children have soooo little power. Often adults cannot see this, for whatever reason. They talk about children as “calling the shots” and “pushing all my buttons” and so on, but children have so little privilege as compared with adults. Parents need to consider just how much power they have so that they can wield it responsibly.

    Secondly, the point of raising our children to have power, to use their voices and assert their identities, is not a way of erasing our own needs, power, and identities as adults/parents. It’s a way of acknowledging, Hey, I have power and privilege and a voice, and so should you. While you’re young, I will help you meet your needs, so that someday you can meet your own. I like your image of moving from benevolent dictatorship to democracy. Young children can’t take all the responsibility for decisions on themselves, but neither should their desires be ignored; it’s my job as a parent sometimes to set aside my own needs for their good, because I can and because I choose to so I can be a good parent. But the expectation is that, as we grow together, we’ll find ways to share the power more equitably.

    Oh, gosh, I can’t even get out what I’m thinking. It’s 1 in the morning, and I have a 3-year-old who thinks it’s time to play. (Actually, I think he just needs to poop.) Speaking of power and jellyfish, etc. — draw what conclusions you wish. :) I just wanted to make sure I said that I really like this post of yours and already disagree with Grosshans and will look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the book. Thanks!

    • michelle July 19, 2010, 1:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Lauren! I agree that the ideal approach to discipline is the firm yet fair style that recognizes children’s needs (and powerlessness) and respects those things.

      Turns out that I wasn’t the only one thinking about issues of power and parenting yesterday: here is a link to an essay by Alfie Kohn that challenges the assumption that there are more poorly behaved kids and permissive parents today than in previous generations. The comments and his responses are also interesting, they are here.

      What is also interesting to me is that the same claim (that children are more poorly behaved, and at earlier ages) is made by Mate and Neufeld in Hold on to Your Kids, but they perceive the source of the problem to be a lack of attachment instead of a lack of parental power. Neufeld claims that lack of attachment causes children to bond with their peers and more actively reject their parents, which renders parental attempts at control useless. I find myself agreeing much more with Neufeld on this one. Even if lack of power is a problem, the solution lies in strengthening the attachment relationship, not taking a harder line on bedtimes and potty issues. I am curious to see how Grosshans approaches this. (I suspect her solution isn’t based on NVC and attachment, however)

  • Deb Chitwood @ Living Montessori Now July 25, 2010, 4:56 pm

    Great post! It’s too bad that so many people equate gentle discipline with letting kids run wild. Your benevolent dictatorship to democracy motif gives a good idea of what gentle discipline is really about.

    • michelle July 26, 2010, 11:00 pm

      It’s true. I think kids do need a fair bit of “running wild”, but the trick is finding appropriate outlets for them to do that in a way that isn’t disruptive. :)

  • Jen July 27, 2010, 8:39 am

    I’ve read and re-read this post, since it popped up on my Facebook page, and I have to say I totally disagree. I’ve been through the journey of “gentle discipline” with my 5-year-old, and thought a LOT about “power,” and how it relates to parenting, and it seems like many parents and authors think of “power” in a totally counterproductive way that’s deeply embedded in our culture.

    We tend to think of power as “power OVER” other people. If I’m being a permissive parent, it’s seen as not having the power to control my child’s behavior. If I take control of my children, I have the power even if I’m a “benevolent dictator” – i.e. using that power for the best intentions to help them grow and then learn to take over their own power.

    It’s really all just more than one angle within the same paradigm.

    If we have a totally different kind of power, one that doesn’t come from control, but from a deep sense of connectedness, it’s a “power with,” and we can share it with our children, and see how they have a deep wellspring of it within them. We are helping them to navigate the use of that power of well-being, not holding onto a false sense of control (can we really control anything?) and gradually handing it over to them as if they had none to begin with.

    My definition of “gentle discipline” involves shifting the paradigm of what power means altogether.

    • michelle July 27, 2010, 1:52 pm

      Hi Jen, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that “power with” is preferable to “power over”, and that the effectiveness of that “power with” comes from a strong attachment and connectedness with a child. As I mentioned in a previous comment, Hold on to Your Kids talks about how attachment affects parental influence, and I agree with Mate and Neufeld 100%. Attachment comes first, and influence/power will follow.

      However, in the nitty-gritty of daily life with young kids, I think parents have to use a mix of “power with” and “power over”. My 14mo yawns over lunch and I use my “power with” her to take her upstairs and nurse her to sleep. Earlier this morning she started walking towards the steps on the front porch, and I used my “power over” her to lift her up and bring her back inside. She really wanted to go down those stairs, but lacked both the physical ability to do so and the understanding of cause and effect to predict how she would likely tumble down them. I was trying to get ready to go out to the park and didn’t have the time to walk with her up and down the stairs, so I used my parental power to bring her inside and close the door.

      A single situation might also require a mix of “power with” and “power over” – such as a child who throws a tantrum in the toy store. (ask me how I know this…) I had to use my “power over” to physically carry my daughter out of the store because she and I had come to the limit of our ability to negotiate there. I used my “power with” to stay with her as I walked her home in the stroller and as we talked through what happened when we got home.

      As long as there’s a healthy balance between “power with” and “power over” and the overarching principle of respect for the child and the adult is being met, then I don’t see a problem with parents using some amount of “power over”. It’s certainly not the ideal parenting tool or the only one, but sometimes it is necessary. This is what I meant by Benevolent Dictator – not that it’s my job to shape and mold my children into the adults they will become. They are on their own paths to maturity. I believe it’s my job to make sure they stay safe and learn how to navigate society’s social rules while they’re still too immature to do that totally by themselves.

  • Jen July 29, 2010, 9:15 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. It’s really clear that you’ve thought it through, and I can’t quite pinpoint what about it just doesn’t sit right with me. Something about the idea of a paradigm shift and how it’s not something you “do” or “use,” but something you believe. I don’t know. But clearly you are doing a great job with your kids and inspiring other moms to boot! Don’t mind me. :)

    • michelle July 29, 2010, 9:08 pm

      I think I know what you mean about a paradigm shift – I can feel it in my own parenting sometimes. Reading all this stuff about power in Beyond Time Out has inspired me to re-read Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort, mostly to see and feel the other side of that paradigm more clearly.

      I’m still trying to pull all these thoughts together for my review post – I’ve got to get it done soon because the book is due back at the library on Sunday. Back to reading! Thanks for adding your view on this Jen, I do appreciate your comments.

    • michelle July 29, 2010, 9:33 pm

      Just came across something that illustrates this paradigm shift nicely: (as I understand it, anyway)


      Scroll down to the last section, titled, “First / Second / Third State Experience”. I think that gentle parenting in it’s purest form and in the biggest-picture view feels more like a third-state experience than a second-state one, although I do think it’s possible to parent gently from a second-state perspective as well.

  • chris white August 2, 2010, 10:54 am

    great post and great dialogue! so refreshing to be in conversation with such insightful parents. here is my take:
    power=the ability to get something done
    “power with” vs “power over” seems to discriminate between when your immediate goals are aligned(power with) vs not aligned(power over)
    1st stage “power over”(dominance hierarchies) is used to get what we want no matter the effect on the child. 3rd stage “power over” (benevolent dictator) is always done with the most long term benefit in mind. it’s the overall health of the family that counts which can never be separated from optimizing the child’s development (which always is the best resolution to behavioral problems in the end).
    i LOVE your point about moving from benevolent dictator to democracy over time. that perfectly matches the development of the child’s brain and what is necessary: they are primarily driven by the attachment brain in the first several years and DO NOT DO DEMOCRACY well for sustained periods. if you try to be on equal ground with them, they will move into the alpha position because the attachment brain is hierarchical. if they move into the alpha, they will be chronically anxious because deep down they know they have no business being in charge in a strange world and very little experience. which brings me to the last point:
    even greater than keeping them from external harm with our use of power is protecting them from the inner harm of constant anxiety provoked by the parent not clearly being in charge. there is nothing more relaxing to our nervous systems than the person we love the most saying/embodying:
    “you mean the world to me and i will always do what is best for you (subtext: even when you are crying or angry with me and don’t understand)”
    see http://blog.essentialparenting.com/2010/07/discipline/ and
    for thoughts on discipline and necessary elements of relational nourishment in parenting.
    so glad to have found your blog! i am signed up!

    • michelle August 3, 2010, 12:13 am

      Thanks for your reply, Chris. The more I read about power and discipline the more I am convinced that appropriate and respectful power is the key to making gentle discipline work, but the way it is presented, both as a topic in a parenting book and as an actual discipline practice makes such a difference. I really enjoyed reading through the posts on your blog, and I think you’ve nailed the balance and right approach to power and discipline in a parent/child relationship. I find it so interesting to learn about parenting in relation to a child’s brain development, and I’m planning on going back through your archives to find posts like that. Do you have any books that you would recommend that focus on brain development/attachment/discipline?

  • chris white August 3, 2010, 8:40 am

    hey michelle,
    Parenting from the Inside Out by Dan Siegel is a great book with lot’s of science on brain development and functioning. not much on discipline though.
    I am reading The Neuroscience of Human Relationships by Lou Cozolino right now – very cool book.
    And much denser is Dan Siegel’s The Developing Mind which is very scientific but groundbreaking and very good.
    As far as discipline, and i think you are with me on this, Neufeld has the best models out there. I just did 2 week long intensives with him and they were amazing. much more practical than anyone else i have seen and very deeply grounded in developmental science.
    Hand in Hand Parenting/Patty Wipfler is also very insightful.
    There are some thoughts.
    Take care
    any strong recs for me?