No is Not the Lesson: Solving Power Struggles

By Gaynell Payne

No is not the lessonA part on our dishwasher broke. I spread a towel on the counter and washed the dishes by hand, laying them on the towel to dry. While I was washing, my 23-month-old son wandered in to see what I was doing. Seeing the towel hanging over the counter, the temptation was too much for him. He grabbed the towel and started to pull.

“No, don’t pull that,” I said firmly. He fussed and objected, then reached up again. There was a coffee thermos I’d just washed, so I handed it to him to play with instead. He snatched it enthusiastically, but looked back at the towel. He reached up with his free hand and tugged.

“No, you can’t pull on that,” I repeated. He fussed, then pointed to the thermos lid still on the towel. I handed it to him and soon he was happily playing on the floor beside me.

It’s possible that some people would say that my son “won” in this scenario. I didn’t use the opportunity to drive home the word “no” and all of its negative connotations. Instead I distracted him with something else that I knew he liked to play with.

The Classic Power Struggle – Ending in Punishment

Alternate Scenario: My son grabs the towel and starts to pull. “No, don’t pull that,” I say firmly. He looks at me and cries while I continue to wash dishes. In a minute he grabs the towel again, pulling harder. “No!” I yell. “I said, DON’T PULL THAT!” Being yelled at always sends him into a crying tantrum. This time he objects by trying to pull the towel and all of its contents off of the counter. This, in turn, spurs me to have to be even tougher with him to win what I perceive as a power struggle. I have to resort to punishment.

There are several ways parents proceed from here, from spanking to yelling to time-outs. They often involve the eventual domination of the child, and the lesson to him is that he is not the power holder – the parent is.

What is Discipline?

Discipline is teaching a child about the world, and how we conduct ourselves to get along with others in the world. Power struggles are often involved when you are teaching discipline to a child, but they should not be the subject of the teaching. Too often parents get confused, caught up in the struggle. The object lesson then becomes about who is in control. It often ends with the child in tears and the parent claiming an uneasy victory in the lesson, “I hold the power, not you.” Is it any wonder that these lessons end up — by design — making the child feel powerless?

The Classic Power Struggle – Ending in Bribery

Alternate Scenario: My son grabs the towel and starts to pull. “Please don’t pull that,” I say. He looks at me and pouts. He immediately grabs the towel again, pulling harder. “Stop!” I cry, grabbing his hand. He struggles to free himself. “If you stop, I’ll give you this thermos!” I say frantically. “You always like to play with this thermos!” I give him the thermos. He looks at it skeptically and throws it down, reaching for the towel again. “How about a cookie?” I say. “If you stop, I’ll give you a cookie!” That usually gets his cooperation. He lets me pick him up and holds his hand out for the cookie. Then he holds out his other hand, wanting a second cookie. I give it to him because two cookies will keep him occupied longer while I try to finish up real fast and get the towel out of his way. On the way back to the sink, I trip over the rejected thermos.

What is Redirection?

Choices are wonderful things to give children, but there is a distinct difference between redirection and bribery:

  • Bribery is an if-then statement: “If you stop pulling on the towel, then I’ll give you this toy to play with.” This statement gives the child too much power. It tells the child he has the choice to continue to do something that you do not wish. It implies that you are desperate and begging for him to choose to stop. This continues the uneven power course in giving him all the power and you little or none.
  • Legitimate choices are given on an even basis, without taking authority away from the parent: “Which DVD do you want to watch: Movie A or Movie B?” “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” I suggest that any parent should look for opportunities to let their child make choices as often as possible. It’s their life, and they should feel as if their input matters. When they are validated in this way on a regular basis, it is easier for them to accept “no” when it’s necessary.

Was My Son Trying to Dominate Me?

To understand what’s going on, we have to get a little analytical about the situation. Once we understand the whys, it will be easier to judge how to handle it.

Why did my son pull on the towel? Because toddlers have a very strong need to explore their world. It is a pre-programmed drive that urges them to get out there and learn. As adults, we have been there and back and don’t see what the big deal is. It’s obvious to us what will happen if you pull on a towel that is loaded with dishes. Sometimes we forget that it’s not so obvious to them. We perceive their actions as if it they were adults and their actions are purposeful attempts to make a mess. Some would even go so far as to think that the child was making mischief just to provoke them or make their life harder, like some form of revenge or passive-aggressive behavior. Manipulative is a word often mistakenly associated with young children. It is sad because it invalidates the true and innocent need for a child to get a handle on the world around him.

There is a term in psychology called projecting. It’s very much like it sounds. When a person has unhealthy feelings about themselves, they expect that others have these feelings about them, too. They then project them onto someone else, even when that someone else is not really feeling that way.

It’s often the young child that gets to be the screen that the parent’s unresolved issues are projected onto. Young children, even after they’ve learned to talk, are so often unable to articulate their feelings or control their emotions. This allows ample opportunity for an insecure person to see things in their children that aren’t there. For example, instead of seeing that the child has a healthy drive to explore, their willfulness can be perceived as insolence or a lack of respect. This taps into the parent’s insecurities that say they are not good enough to be respected. This may be doubly hard to hear (though it’s not actually being said) coming from a child — their own child no less! So the parent comes down harder. They must get respect out of that child, whatever the cost.

Meanwhile the child is getting another message altogether. They are getting the message that their needs are bad, and their efforts to get those needs met will not be respected. They will be punished. They are also getting the message that they are not good enough to be respected, and that they are only an insignificant child.

Is it any wonder that a child whose parents perpetuate this power struggle, over time comes to believe that he isn’t good enough and not respectable? In the future, if he doesn’t deal with those feelings of insecurity, he may come to have a child and find their curiosity a reflection of his parents’ lack of respect for him. And so the tragic cycle continues.

The Lesson

It’s the winding path of parenthood that often makes us forget the real lesson we were trying to teach in each situation. In fact, like most parents, I hardly ever reflect on the practicality of each event in that way. But it’s important sometimes to come back to it, if only to get our bearings.

So what was the lesson? In other words, why did I say “no” to my son? In this instance, it was because pulling the towel down would have undesirable consequences. But, you may object, he did not learn that. No, he didn’t and he won’t for a while. The only way to teach him that lesson would have been to let him pull it on his head, possibly causing injury to himself, and making a lot of work for me. I trust in the course of time and more gentle experiments that he will learn the cause and effect of actions such as this. Since I was unable to help him learn what he was curious about, I still recognized his attempts as part of the base need to explore and learn. So I made a substitution. I gave him the thermos, because I knew he was curious about that also. He had been exploring it in the past few days; imitating Daddy and pretending to drink out of it. It was neither bribery nor dismissal; it was redirection.

Instead of dismissing my child’s actions, I tried to hear what he was saying to me. In this case, it was, “I want to learn. I need to explore.” Because I listened to him, he listened to me when I said “no.” Even after he was finished playing with the thermos, he didn’t try to pull the towel down again. As a mom, I consider that successful discipline.

4 thoughts on “No is Not the Lesson: Solving Power Struggles”

  1. I completely agree with this method of redirection. However, I often feel like this kind of advice makes the assumption that the child will then be content w/ the thermos etc. Some toddlers (like my own) will keep on trying for the original desire (pull towel down). Will keep trying and keep trying and keep trying no matter what you do. How do you suggest responding in these scenarios?

  2. I have contacted the author of this article to see if she can offer your help, too, but in reading your comment, I can relate. I wonder how old your child is? My toddlers when they were younger were very persistent as well, and just about the only thing that would work was to remove the child from the situation, such as putting the towel up. I would also try to head it off by keeping some special toys or books up and only bringing them down when I needed to give a task my undivided attention.

    To discuss this further, I recommend going to the API Forum in the Positive Discipline section: It’s a place to find advice and to share your own experiences.

    I also recommend reading Discipline without Distress by Judy Arnall, which may give you some great strategies. Anyone else care to share your favorite discipline book?

  3. Posted on behalf of the author, Gaynell Payne

    I understand. My son is a high needs, very curious, and very determined child. In this instance it was because the thermos was an ongoing source of fascination for him and he wasn’t done exploring it. I couldn’t have made a substitute with just any old toy and expect it to work.

    What I’m talking about is discovering what your child’s base need is, then trying to help her meet that need in an appropriate way. Does she insist on going for the towel because she doesn’t have enough opportunity to explore new things?

    Only you can really work out what works best for you and your child in any given circumstance. If you are working on a task that she absolutely must have her hands in, you can either give her opportunity to “help” (I put a little flour in a bowl and let my son stir it when I bake), or you can pick her up in your arms and talk to her softly with kisses and tickles (is it really mommy time she’s craving?) and redirect her to a craft or activity at a table close to you. I keep containers of age-appropriate craft supplies such as straws, disposable sippy cup lids, large googly eyes, and play dough (these are all fun mixed together). Make sure she is engaged in her new activity and has spent a few minutes doing it with you before you sneak off again.

    Sometimes if the source of fascination is a permanent object, changes have to be made. Imagine a big, luscious chocolate cake (or whatever would tempt you the most) sitting on the table day after day, and you’re not allowed to have a bite! One day you just might break down and grab a piece. Well, I would.

    Once my son was mobile, we had to redecorate the whole house. I’ve never known anyone to have to go to such extremes as we did, and people looked at us funny until my curious child visited their houses. I have no more floor lamps, or lamps of any kind, and had to rethink lighting until we strung café lights through the living room. Very bohemian.

    I do occasionally use time-ins, and he often hears “no.” But I try to limit it and take into account where he is in his development and how much he can be expected to handle. As he gets older, I allow more opportunity for him to learn limitations. We have moved the bookcases back in the living room from the attic and now he understands that we don’t dump the books off every day.

    I often get compliments on how happy and well behaved my son is when we are out. He listens to me a good percent of the time and respects my authority.

    I believe that behavior modifications start with the parents’ behavior. We either take the time to figure out what works for our child, or we break them. For me, that’s just not an option.

    I know it’s hard, but with a little detective work into your child’s needs I’m confident you’ll both learn to find a balance. Remember, it’s these determined little ones that are going to change the world!

  4. Although with reflection I remember using redirection when my now 2.5 year old was a lot younger, it seems that somewhere along the way I forgot all about it. As she became more independent in terms of mobility and in her choices of what she wanted to do, I found myself yelling more and more (I didn’t know I was a yeller or had such a short fuse!).

    Anyway redirection and trying to suss out her needs are now firmly back on my list of parenting tools. In the towel pulling scenario 2 thoughts occur to me: was the little one’s need one for exploring or wanting attention. If I plumped for exploration one thing to do could be to put lots of plastic dishes on the towel or set up another towel somewhere else on the surface with lots of plastic things on it, and let him tug away. If I was feeling really brave I might put something small and breakable on the towel too so that some learning could take place around that.

    I tend to think of redirection as allowing my little one to do the exact same action she was intending to do but without the consequence that I don’t desire. ie If she’s decided throwing mud at mummy will be fun and I’m not in the mood; I ask her to notice my not so happy face and tell her I don’t feel in the mood for that right now and then I redirct her to using a bush or plant or patch of grass as muddy target practice. I’ve found this type of redirection works as she’s just not distractable in the substitution manner any more. Once she’s set her mind to something she will just keep going at it!!

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