Parenting is not a contest

The traditional reward and punishment model of parenting sets the parent/child relationship up as a contest. The other day I ran into a friend with her toddler. They had just had a tiff while taking a walk. She said to me, “I’m not sure whether I won that round or not.” How did it get to be a contest? The basic assumption and perception must be, “I have to win otherwise I lose.” Power struggles are based on this kind of thinking. My definition of a power struggle is a fight between two kids the same age who are out to win. We lose our maturity, stoop to our child’s age, and duke it out. To engage in a power struggle means that you are out to win. And you will keep arguing or fighting until you do. That means that necessarily your child has to lose. Hence the next power struggle is set up.

When parenting is a contest, children are on the defensive, watchful of what the next strategy is that we will pull out of our back pocket. Sometimes they are predictable—yelling, threatening, taking away a desired object or privilege—sometimes they come out of the blue forcing the child to be on constant alert. But we don’t see it that way. We see the child being difficult. When arguments and fights are regular, both children and parents are on battle-alert most of the time, which means the slightest provocation will set off a trigger. “Here we go again” might be a familiar refrain. It’s exhausting.

To stop the battle, the parent has to be the grown-up first and leave the battle field. You don’t have to win or lose. Practice simply being with your child and watching with curiosity. Gather your child in each morning and start the day off on an equal footing, respectful and considerate of each other. Listen and take a couple minutes before responding to your child’s demands. Wait and see what comes up. It will definitely be better than your automatic knee-jerk reaction. No one has to win or lose.