Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

Children Of Today And Their Struggle For Power - Part III

Children of today struggle for power in their families in ways that no one would have thought of even ten years ago. For this reason, parents can find themselves exasperated, exhausted, and overwhelmed when trying to stick with decisions that they've made which are based on their values. Yet children's tactics fall into some fairly predicable patterns. Knowing how to handle your child's struggle for power by recognizing what tactic your child is using can be helpful when trying to uphold your values. One common way that some children get their parents to "give in" or change their minds about decisions is by becoming a "interrogator," incessantly grilling their parents for more information, until the parent either gets fed up and gives in, or loses their temper. Either way, the child gains power. Let's look at an example.

Like many parents, Joan and her husband Sam were concerned about violence on television and in the movies and it's effect on their children. So when their ten year old son, David asked Joan if he could go see "Saving Private Ryan" she said no. David, however, a typical child of today, stayed calm and began to question her. "But why? Why can't I go see it?" "Because, David," she replied, "it has graphic violent scenes that Dad and I feel uncomfortable about." "What kind of violent scenes?" "Graphic ones." "What does graphic mean?" "It means intense, it means realistic. Probably bloody." "How do you know?" "Because Dad's friend at work saw it." "But what's so wrong with it? I know it's just a movie. Please can I go?" "No, you can't." "But why?" "I already told you why." "But I don't understand. Why can't I see violent scenes if I know it's just a movie." "Because we don't like you to see them." "But why don't you like me to see them?" "Because they could have an effect on you." "What kind of effect?" At this point, despite Mom's valiant attempt to stay calm and respect her son's questions, she began to lose her temper. "David! I already said no!" "But, Mom," David replied, "I'm just trying to understand why you won't let me go. What's so bad about violence if you know that it's just a movie?" Now Mom felt rattled. All of her son's questions had confused her a little. What was wrong with violence if you knew it was just a movie? After all, adults see violent movies from time to time with no long lasting effects. Still, she knew that she and her husband had agreed on this for a reason. She made a final attempt, "David, I read somewhere that it wasn't good for children to see movies with violence because it could effect them," she said. "Where did you read it?" David wanted to know, "and what kind of an effect does it have?" "I don't remember, exactly," Mom replied wearily. "Well, then, why can't I go? I'm sure it won't have an effect. Please?" At this point, Mom was fed up and finally agreed, "All right, go already."

David's struggle for power through interrogation paid off. Knowing that his mother would respectfully address his questions, he kept questioning until she ran out of steam. David got exactly what he wanted in the first place, and Mom not only lost some authoritative power but sent a poor message about values - the underlying message to David was that Mom didn't care enough about her values, or had not done enough research on her values to be able to stick with them, despite opposition. Obviously, not all scenarios involving "interrogators" end in this way. Sometimes parents just get angry and yell at their children when they're questioned in this manner. While they may not give in, as Joan did, the message to their children is still that they're not secure enough in the foundation for their values that they can't calmly set and stick with a limit which involves those values.

Joan is not a poor parent. In fact, part of the reason that David was able to use the interrogative method was that Joan feels children should be respected and listened to. She wants to help David understand the reasons behind her and her husband's decisions so that he can eventually come to make good decisions on his own. That type of thinking actually forms the foundation for good parenting. The problem is that Joan wasn't clear on how to set a limit on David's interrogation while still respecting his desire to understand her values.

Rather than answering every question that David proposed, Mom could have allowed for two or three questions, then asked David, "David, what about my answer of `no' are you having trouble understanding?" Had he responded by saying "I don't understand the answer at all, why can't I go?" then Mom could express understanding for his curiosity while still setting a limit by saying "I know that it can be difficult to understand. My answer is `no,' but if you'd like more information about why Dad and I have made this decision with regard to violence, then we'll sit down later this week as a family to discuss it. That will give me enough time to pull out the articles I've read to help you better understand the basis for our decision." If David still persisted, Mom could disengage with him by saying "David, the discussion is closed until later this week when Dad and I will do our best to help you understand our decision."

The trick with an interrogator is to stop answering the questions. The minute you've answered more that three or four questions under these circumstances, you've already given up a majority of your power. And the longer your child receives answers to his direct questions, the more persistent he'll be.