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Children and Power
Some thoughts on raising self-authoring, compassionate individuals
By Lael Whitehead

unschooled children and power
photo © Shutterstock Images

We parents have a lot of power…over our children, at least. They begin life entirely dependent on us for survival. They inherit a world-view from us – a set of assumptions about the way things work that will affect them for their whole lives. They learn from us patterns of relating: The way we treat them becomes an internal model for their future relationships with others.

People today are perhaps more conscious of power than they were 50 years ago. We talk a lot about “personal power,” “power trips” and “power hierarchies.” Most of us, I imagine, would like to live in a world that is egalitarian and democratic, one without a dominant class or race or gender, where each individual is free to pursue his or her personal vision of the good life. And yet, as a culture we aren’t very good at detecting unhealthy power situations. Most of us are quick to give too much authority to experts, officials and other gurus. In our personal lives we often can’t tell when we are being dominated or when we are dominating others. In short, we are poorly educated in the language of power.

Learning this language begins at home, during the early years of life. All children begin life as powerful agents. Toddlers are bold and determined. They want to learn to do for themselves what they notice others doing around them. But what they encounter in their family environment is crucial: The way their parents and caregivers treat them will either begin to prune away their faith in their own power or will nurture and protect their native confidence.

The pruning of power happens is many ways. Overt coercion is easy to spot: punishments, threats, criticism, on the one hand, and rewards, bribes and praise for compliance on the other. But you can also undermine the power of a child in subtle and insidious ways. You can “worry” about them continually, causing them to doubt themselves. You can withhold approval and love when they don’t meet your expectations. You can act disappointed, hurt and ashamed when their wishes don’t coincide with yours, and thus threaten the attachment between parent and child.

“You can undermine the power of a child in subtle and insidious ways. You can worry about them continually, causing them to doubt themselves. You can withhold approval and love when they don’t meet your expectations...”

The child who is manipulated into being “good,” whether by punishments, rewards or the withholding of attachment is not an empowered child. She is not practicing her ability to choose. Instead she is learning to ignore her own instincts and intuitions in order to please others. The child whose power is protected, on the other hand, discovers early that she is the author of her own life. She experiences how it feels to make a choice and to live with the consequences. She will know immediately, any time in her future, when another is trying to dominate or control her. She will say, “No thanks,” to any relationship that does not honor her autonomy.

Protecting a child’s power is not as simple as it seems. I have raised three daughters and time and again I have caught myself in the midst of an act of covert dominance. I have offered unasked-for advice. (“Learn Spanish rather than Gaelic, sweetheart. It’s more useful!) I have issued warnings that had more to do with my own anxieties than with any real threats to my daughters’ well-being. (“If you don’t learn to spell well, other people won’t think you are very smart!”) I have tried to bribe and cajole them into activities I thought “good” for them, but which I knew they found unappealing. (“If you spend 15 minutes a day on this boring math stuff, I’ll pay for you to take guitar lessons!”) The only thing I can say in my own defense is that I always felt bad about these power maneuvers, and usually spent a good deal of time apologizing and debriefing afterwards!

True, radical honoring of the power of another takes determination and vigilance. As parents, we have to continually step back from a position of authority over our children. We have to admit to them, “I really don’t know what you should do in this situation, but I will support whatever choice you make.” We have to allow them to write their own unique life-script, conduct their own experiments, make their own mistakes. After all, a good parent is the same as a good friend, partner or citizen. Such a person does not try to shape or control another’s life. Such a person knows that all we can offer one another – and it is a huge gift to give – is a complete, unconditional allowing of the other to be precisely who she or he is. Nothing more, nothing less.

My daughters are mostly grown now, and they dazzle me with their power. They hardly ever need me for support, although they seem to like to hang out with me now and then. Since I have rarely tried to solve their problems for them, they are independent, brave and resourceful in ways that would have been unimaginable for me at their age. And they are compassionate defenders of the power of others. They don’t sit quietly in the presence of bullying!

"Imagine a different kind of world – one in which children were all raised to be powerful."

Adults who feel disempowered are dangerous: They either seek to dominate others in order to restore their personal sense of worth or they seek to be dominated, since that is what feels “normal” and right. People hungry for power make unsustainable social and ecological choices. They create cultures based on dominance, competition and exploitation rather than on fairness and compassion. They take more than they need. The result? Look at the environmental mess we currently face. Only a culture fueled by deep, insatiable hungers for power could so violate and destroy the very sources of our health and well-being.

Imagine a different kind of world – one in which children were all raised to be powerful. Imagine a whole generation arriving at adulthood, each knowing his or her intrinsic, inviolable worth. Picture what they could build together: Joyful, creative and mutually supportive communities in which all are welcome and respected, in which bossing, bullying or attempting to take more than one’s share would seem alien and absurd. If schools existed in such communities, they would look a lot different than the ones we are used to. They would never be compulsory, for starters. The use of punishments, time-outs, grades and prizes for “good” behavior as motivational tools would be unheard of. A new code of conduct would rule every interaction in such communities: Respect others, no matter what their age, race, gender or economic class. Never, under any circumstance, violate their integrity and otherness with controlling remarks, manipulation, uninvited criticism or coercion. Never steal their power. Period.

Maybe those of us active in the search for a sustainable future should pay more attention to the way we raise our children. Perhaps the revolution will begin there, in the language our children learn as their mother tongue: The language of true power, which is never power-over, but always power-with. After all, it is the only language of love.

Lael Whitehead is a musician, writer, and mother of three. She lives on a sheep farm in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia with her husband, Richard Iredale, and whichever daughter happens to be home at the time! Julia, Marlies, and Lauren designed their own educations. All three continue to inspire their parents with their optimism, energy, and enthusiasm for being alive. She is the author of the book A Path of Their Own: Helping Children Educate Themselves.

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