No-one really wins a power struggle

Posted by Samantha on January 24, 2013 in Boundaries, Empathy, Relationships |
No room for shaming here...

No room for shaming here…

I live very close to a primary school.  One morning as I came out my front door, Henry*, and his Granny and Grandad were getting out of their car.  Henry started whining.

“I don’t want to park here”, Henry moaned at his Granny.  My ears started tingling.  “How will Granny handle this?” I wondered.

“Well, it’s not your decision Henry, you’re not the driver.”

Wow, I thought.  Top marks to Granny.  Simple, honest, direct.  And very, very adult.  It was one of those moments when I mused again how we really have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to raising children these days.

Anyway, Henry wasn’t as impressed as me.  He stood stock still and refused to take his Granny’s hand when she held it out.

I instantly made up a story here.  My story went like this: Henry is normally taken to school by his Mum or Dad who arrive earlier and park closer to school.  While they’re on holiday, Granny and Granddad are filling in and they’ve parked outside my house, oblivious to the fact that they’ve upset Henry’s usual routine.  He’s not impressed with the extra walking that he quickly realises he’ll have to do.  He’s used to announcing his likes and dislikes and having his Mum and Dad take them into account more than his Granny did.  Now he’s cross with his Granny’s response to his announcement, as well as unimpressed with his Granddad’s choice of parking space.

What will Granny do next?

Feeling a little angry, Granny goes for a threatening tone when she next speaks.  She says, “Come along Henry. Now.”

Henry remains silent and motionless on the footpath.  Granny has wandered away from A+ parenting and is resorting to the kinds of techniques we have rightly tried to turn our backs on.  But she doesn’t know what else to do.

She’s getting crosser by the second, but Henry is made of sterner stuff.

Granny realises her threatening approach isn’t working.  The clock is ticking.  So she changes tack.

“What’s Mrs Bourke* going to think of you moaning like a baby?”   She’s referring, I assume, to Henry’s teacher.

There’s the tiniest hint of movement in Henry’s feet.  His defiance is withering in the face of his Granny’s shaming and belittling.  I can see him shrinking slightly.

It’s enough to move them forward.  Granny walks back and takes Henry’s hand in hers (not in the least bit gently I might add).  The power struggle is over.  Granny has “won”.

When I see this kind of interaction, I really wish that parents – and grandparents – everywhere could somehow learn to use empathy with the children they love.

How differently it might have gone if Granny had recognised that Henry simply wanted to park in his usual spot.  Then she might have followed up her great opening response (It’s not your decision Henry) with some consideration for how he felt in that moment.

Being able to respond to Henry with empathy when he said “I don’t want to park here” would have helped him move forward and accept the change in his routine.

Granny was great at knowing where her boundary lay (children do not decide where adults park).  But she didn’t know what to do to avert the power struggle that arose.  She didn’t know how to empathise with Henry’s desire for things to be different.  She didn’t know how to enquire about what was up with him – and still keep him moving towards school without the blows to his sense of self that her threatening and belittling will almost certainly have inflicted.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this exchange for me was realising that Granny will probably forget all about it.  But if incidents like this add up, our children and grandchildren eventually reach a point where they will not like spending time with us.  And we will be confused and bewildered about why.  We will be tempted to blame it on the children.  But that will not be the truth.

The truth will be that we did not know how to raise our children with respect for their dignity and personhood.  And because it is normal to want to avoid people who criticise and shame you, children raised in this way will turn away from the adults they love.

And those adults will be hurt by their children’s behaviour.

But the reason for their behaviour will not be a mystery to those of us who have been watching.

* not their real names


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