Do your kids have to fight for power?

kids tug of warINTRO
In my parenting classes we often have lively discussions when we start to consider the partnership parenting approach that I teach.  What does it mean to share power in your family?  Can kids really handle more choice and power?  Isn’t it our job to make most decisions for them while they are very young and limit their choice-making to wearing either the blue or the red socks? In my experience, children can handle way more power than we, as the adults in their lives, are willing to give them.  In fact, I believe we unconsciously foster, to a great extent, powerlessness in our children.  And when children feel powerless, what options do they have but to submit or rebel? Submission turns them into nice dead people and rebellion turns them into very challenging children to raise.  If you see submission or rebellion in your kids, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself honestly, “Do I feel power-full?  or do I feel power-less?”
In my own family, I know that my life would be so much easier if my kids would submit to my power and just do what I tell them to do.  But I’m not interested in just getting compliance if it’s going to come at a cost, if it harms the relationship in the long-term.  Plus, I want my children to realize they are powerful beings and to recognize and be in touch with their own needs–even if it means disagreeing with me and what I think is best for them.  After all, it is their life and their journey.  I don’t want to stand in the way of what they are here to learn.

Do your kids have to fight for power?

The shift to a power-sharing parenting paradigm can be mind-boggling and a lot of inside resistance can come up.  it usually goes like this, “If I open that can of worms, if I let my child have some power in making decisions that affect him, then all hell will break loose and I’ll never get back any control.”

So you start white-knuckling it, trying to keep control at all costs.  And, eventually, it does come at a cost.  They don’t stay young and pliable forever.  And that’s if you’re lucky enough to start out with a compliant child.  I didn’t start with a compliant child so my learning came early and quick!  Within the first year I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that control was just an illusion.  Once I loosened my grip on that illusion, things started to shift for the better.

There are sometimes very good reasons not to share power.  But I believe that are more good reasons to share power with our kids, starting when they are young.  Allowing them to have choice and leadership in their lives (within safe limits) in ever larger doses as they age, instills in them confidence that they can manage their lives, make decisions–even bad ones–and bounce back when they make mistakes.  It instills in them a knowing that what they think and need matters in this world.  This inner trust in themselves (or the lack of it) will be their guide into adulthood and will impact every relationship they have, especially the one with themselves.

There are too many grown-ups walking around today with this harsh voice inside that says things like, “You’re not worthy.  You’re not enough.  You’re not loveable because you are flawed.  You don’t really matter.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids grow up to hear a different voice inside, a nurturing one that says things like, “I’m not perfect but I’m still worthy and loveable.  I am enough; I don’t have to be something I’m not.  I matter.  I have the power to create the life I want.”

How do they learn this power and how to manage it if we never give it to them?  Or if they have to fight so hard for it that they never learn the give and take of sharing power with others?  I don’t have the “right” answer, but I sure do love the questions!  We encourage our children to share with others.  Are we modeling the same when it comes to power?

Mommy! Deidra won’t share with me!

Deidra, who is four, and her sister, Kim, who is three, are playing with their pony pals.  Everything is going fine until Kim asks to take a turn with Deidra’s special glitter pony and Deidra refuses to share. Kim starts to get upset and so you go in to see what’s causing the fuss. Kim is crying and asks you to please “make Deidre share with me.”  Deidra says no, this is her special pony and she doesn’t want anyone else to play with him.  Kim is in full meltdown by now and is trying to pry the glitter pony from Deidra’s hands.  What’s a mom to do?

First and foremost….take a deep breath and pause.  Notice that instant flash of heat in your belly and your thinking which has probably gone haywire with thoughts such as:  “Why can’t I ever get five minutes of peace so I can do the things I need to do around here?”  or “That’s just like Deidra, selfish and uncaring” or “They will never grow up and learn to get along with each other…this is the story of my life!”

When our buttons are pushed, the thinking part of our brain shuts down and we are hijacked into a fight or flight reaction where our thinking becomes exaggerated and fatalistic.  If we act when we are in this mode, chances are it’s going to be ugly and no true learning will take place. 

That’s why the pause is so important.  It allows us to calm that fire in our belly and shift back into our thinking brain where we can respond from a place of choice. So now that you’re back to calm, what do you choose to do?

Here are some options (and my guess as to the path each option will take us down):

1.  You take the pony out of Deidre’s hand and give it to Kim.  It’s important that Deidre learns to share whether she wants to or not.  It’s the polite thing to do.
The Path: Deidre will have a sense of powerlessness.  She will learn that if you’re bigger, you can exert power over smaller people.  She will start to resent her sister and take her frustrations out on her every chance she gets. Kim will learn that in order to get what she wants, she just needs to throw a fit and you will come running.

2.  You try to distract Kim with other pretty ponies and tell her, “That glitter pony is old anyway.  No one wants to play with him.”
The Path: If the ploy “works” and you succeed in distracting Kim away from wanting the pony, it’s not likely to be for long.  In a few minutes, the fighting will ensue over some new toy.  That’s because the issue of sharing has not been resolved and no learning has taken place.  Plus, Deidre may feel hurt that you spoke about her special pony in such a way.

3.  You tell the kids that if they can’t work this out on their own then they’ll each be sent to their room  to play alone.
The Path: If it’s gotten to this point, it’s unlikely that they will be able to work this out on their own without your support. They are both also hijacked by their limbic system into a fight or flight mode.  If you follow through and send them each to their room they will learn that when life gets messy, no one around here knows how to straighten it out. The message they internalize will be, “When the going gets tough, I’m on my own.” 

4.  You go deeper than the behavior and search for what is driving it…what is each child needing in the moment?  You show understanding for what’s happening with each child.
You might say something like, “Deidre, are you wanting to be able to choose for yourself when you’re willing to share your toys–or not?”  You show  that you understand what Kim is feeling by saying, “Kim, you really want to play with that glitter pony.  You really want your sister to let you play with him.”  Then, you might invite them to help you problem-solve: “It looks like we have a dilemma. What can we do?”  Chances are they can’t hear you…yet. Kim may try to grab, Deidre may clutch tighter to the pony.  But if you remain calm and confident that together as a “team” you can find a solution, then the odds are greater that you will. 

Respect Deidre’s need to make choices about her possessions and be there for Kim as she goes through her intense feelings of not getting what she wants.  When the commotion dies down, together you may come up with some guidelines around sharing: (1) if an item (such as the glitter pony) is not for sharing, then it will be left out of sight when the sisters play together, (2) if both sisters want to play with the same toy at the same time, then they will play “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets it first, (3) if there’s a squabble over a toy, then the toy gets to take a break in another room for 10 minutes.

The Path: The bottom line is…we can’t teach our children to share by forcing them because true sharing comes from the heart. By respecting each child’s boundaries and willingness (or not) to share, we send the message that  “Your voice matters.  You can say no if you don’t want to share.”  Now of course we also want to encourage empathy and seeing the needs and wishes of others…but that’s hard to do if we don’t sense that anyone sees our needs and wishes first.  In the teen years, we will be glad that we instilled in our child that her voice matters, that she can set boundaries and say no.

And for the child who so wanted to play with that toy and was denied, we send the message “I know it’s hard. It’s okay to have your feelings.”  And you know what?  She survives and she builds up resilience to life’s many frustrations and disappointments.


Be proactive when teaching values to your children.  Don’t wait for a conflict over a toy to try to teach sharing.  Set your kids up for success by planning strategies to “practice” sharing when everyone is in a good mood.  Encourage them to come up with their own solutions, such as:  taking turns choosing a toy to play with, setting a timer then switching toys with each other, etc.

You can also model sharing by having your own toy box of toys which you joyfully share with them.  Share your toys with their friends when they come over too.