The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Power Struggle

Parents concern for providing the best for their children can, if overdone, be discouraging to children and self-defeating for the parents’ objectives.  It can also lay the groundwork for power struggles between parents and children.

An interesting example, which occurs in infancy, is that problems with food can begin when a child is introduced to solid food.  It is no longer associated with hunger, but with the power of the parents to control when, what and how much a child eats.  The child, in turn gains the power to manipulate the parent by imposing his own will on when, what and how much he eats.  Prior to to time, the child was in control because milk was supplied whenever he cried for it, and he could quit whenever his hunger was satisifed.  The introduction of solid food, in many cases, brings the need and opportunity to impose more structured and disciplined eating habits on the child.  If this is done improperly, it can affect adversely the child’s whole attitude toward food.

A similar critical time occurs when the child starts school.  Learning is now under the control of the adults.  Adults decide when, what and how much the child will learn in the class.  A preschool child has much more control of his learning.  He can explore the world on his own terms, and adults tend not to interfere, regarding it as play rather than learning.  As with food, the danger exists for the child’s attitudes toward learning to be improperly formed.  With the wrong attitude toward food, the child learns to use his power by not eating.  In school, decide that, if he want to frustrate or make parents feel guilty, he can simply not learn.

In response, parents often make the same mistake with learning as they do with food.  They use bribes:  “If you eat your vegetables, I will give you ice cream.”  or “If you do your homework, I will let you watch TV.”  The ground is then laid for power struggles between parent and child, and the weapons for that struggle are forged.  In the one case, food is no longer serving natural, physiological needs, and in the other case learning is no longer serving the natural curiosity of the child.  Both are now serving psychological needs.  Value structures are distorted.  Vegetables and homework become onerous.  Ice cream and TV, both of dubious real value, become highly desirable.

Many of the problems children have in school with learning are not due to disability but are due to unmet psychological needs which are interfering with the learning process.  They are in school not so much because there is some intrinsic value to learning but because of other goals, usually imposed by adults.  If they are unsuccessful in reaching these goals, some children get discouraged and give up.  Learning seems always to be for the purpose of achieving something in the future that adults value.  It does not seem important for its own sake.  “Get on the honor roll so you can get in the best college.” “Take courses that will insure you good grades to get into medical school.”  “Be in the top reading group.”  “Be the best no matter what it takes.”  Parents give these messages because they really do want the best for their children, and work hard toward that goal.  It is no wonder that some parents are shocked and grieved when their efforts backfire.

Children feel the pressure of not being in control of their life and learning.  When the pressure becomes too great, they sometimes resort to power struggles and displays of inadequacy.  In the very young child, as noted, the power struggle can take the form of not eating or eating too much.  In school, the power struggle can take the form of refusing to follow any rules or instructions, and of challenging the authority of the school and home.  Since most learning requires that one follow the rules of the discipline, power struggles are most harmful to the learning process.  Displays of inadequacy are equally destructive to the learner.  These children withdraw completely from any challenge.  They appear helpless and are deeply discouraged.

Parents can best help their children be successful in school by being supportive.  In general, the best message to a child is, “I have confidence in you and trust you to act responsibly.”  As much as parents want to give the best to their children, they are defeating their purpose when they become over involved and take from children their right and opportunity to make wise chosices and be in control of their lives.

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