Power Games By Dr. James Dobson
In our efforts to understand the strong-willed child, we must ask ourselves why he or she is so fond of conflict. If given the opportunity to choose between war and peace, most of us would prefer tranquility. Yet the tough-minded kid goes through life like a runaway lawn mower. He'll chew up anything that gets in his way. The taller the grass, the better he survives and thrives. What makes him like that? What drives him to challenge his mother and defy his father? They are not his enemies. Why would he resist their loving leadership from the earliest days of childhood? Why does he seem to enjoy irritating his siblings and goading his neighbors? Why does he throw erasers when his teachers turn their backs and why won't he do his homework? Indeed, why can't he be like his compliant brothers and sisters?
These are interesting questions that I have pondered for years. Now I believe I'm beginning to understand some of the motivating forces that drive the strong-willed kid to attack his world. Deep within his or her spirit is a raw desire for power. We can define power in this context as control--control of others, control of our circumstances and, especially, control of ourselves. The strong-willed child is not the only one who seeks power, of course. He differs from the rest of the human family only in degree, not in kind. We all want to be the boss and that desire is evident in very young children. Remember the toddler who rode his tricycle into the street and shouted angrily at his mother? The real issue between them was a matter of power and who would hold it. We see the same struggle when an adolescent slams doors and flees in his car, or when a husband and wife fight over finances, or when an elderly woman refuses to move to a nursing home. The common thread is the desire to run our own lives--and that of everyone el se if given the chance. We vary in intensity of this impulse, as we will see, but it seems to motivate all of us to one degree or an other.
The desire for control appears to have its roots in the very early hours after birth. Studies of newborns indicate that they typically "reach" for the adults around them on the first or second day of life. By that I mean they behave in ways designed to entice their guardians to meet their needs. Some will perfect the technique in the years that follow.
Even mature adults who ought to know better are usually involved in power games with other people. It happens whenever human interests collide, but it is especially prevalent in families. Husbands, wives, children, siblings, in-laws and parents all have reason to manipulate each other. It is fascinating to sit back and watch them push, pull and twist. In fact, I've identified sixteen techniques that are used to obtain power in another person's life. Perhaps you will think of additional approaches as you read the list that follows:
1. Emotional Blackmail: "Do what I want or I'll get very angry and go all to pieces."
2. The Guilt Trip: "How could you do this to me after I've done so much for you?"
3. Divine Revelation: "God told me you should do what I want."
4. The Foreclosure: "Do what I want or I won't pay the bills."
5. The Bribe: "Do what I want and I'll make it worth your time."
6. By Might and by Power: "Shut up and do what I tell you!"
7. The Humiliation: "Do what I want or I'll embarrass you at home and abroad."
8. The Eternal Illness: "Don't upset me. Can't you see I'm sick?"
9. Help from Beyond the Grave: "Your dear father (or mother) would have agreed with me."
10. The Adulterous Threat: "Do what I want or I'll find someone who will."
11. The In-law Ploy: "Do what I want and I'll be nice to your sweet mother."
12. The Seduction: "I'll make you an offer you can't afford to refuse," or as Mae West said to Cary Grant, "Why doncha come up and see me some time?" She also said she used to be Snow White but she drifted.
Special approaches used by adolescents:
13. Teenage Terror: "Leave me alone or I'll pull a stupid adolescent stunt" (suicide, drugs, booze, wrecking the car or hitch-hiking to San Francisco).
14. The Flunkout: "Let me do what I want or I'll get myself booted out of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School."
15. Fertile Follies: "Do what I want or I'll present you with a baby!" (This threat short-circuits every nerve in Parent's body.)
16. The Tranquilizer: "Do what I want and I won't further complicate your stressful life."
Manipulation! It's a game any number can play, right in the privacy of your own home. The objective is to obtain power over the other players, as we have seen. It will come as no surprise to parents, I'm sure, that children can be quite gifted at power games. That is why it is important for mothers and fathers to consider this characteristic as they attempt to interpret childish behavior. Another level of motivation lies below the surface issues that seemingly cause conflicts between generations. For example, when a three-year-old runs away in a supermarket, or when a nine-year-old refuses to straighten his room, or when a twelve-year-old continues to bully his little brother, or when a sixteen-year-old smokes cigarettes or drinks liquor, they are making individual statements about power. Their rebellious behavior usually represents more than a desire to do what is forbidden. Rather, it is an expression of independence and self-assertion. It is also a rejection of adult authority, and therein lies the significance for us.
Power games begin in earnest when children are between twelve and fifteen months of age. Some get started even earlier. If you've ever watched a very young child continue to reach for an electric plug or television knob while his mother shouts, "No!", you've seen an early power game in progress. It is probably not a conscious process at this stage, but later it will be. I'm convinced that a strong-willed child of three or older is inclined to challenge his mom and dad whenever he believes he can win. He will carefully choose the weapons and select the turf on which the contest will be staged. I've called these arenas "the battlefields of childhood." Let's look at some of the Gettysburgs, Stalingrads or Waterloos that have gone down in family history.
One of the earliest contests begins at eighteen months and one day of age, give or take a few hours. At precisely that time, a toddler who has gone to bed without complaining since he was born will suddenly say, "I'm not getting back in that crib again for as long as I live." That is the opening salvo in what may be a five-year battle. It happens so quickly and unexpectedly that parents may be fooled by it. They will check for teething problems, a low-grade fever or some other discomfort. "Why now?" they ask. I don't know. It just suddenly occurs to toddlers that they don't want to go to bed anymore, and they will fight it tooth and nail.
Although the tactics change a bit, bedtime will continue to be a battlefield for years to come. Any creative six-year-old can delay going to bed for at least 45 minutes by an energetic and well-conceived system of stalling devices. By the time his mother gets his pajamas on, brings him six glasses of water, takes him to the bathroom twice, helps him say his prayers, and then scolds him for wandering out of his bedroom a time or two, she is thoroughly exhausted. It happens night after night.
A college friend of mine named Jim found himself going through this bedtime exercise every evening with his five-year-old son, Paulie. Jim recognized the tactics as a game and decided he didn't want to play anymore. He sat down with his son that evening and said, "Now, Paulie, things are going to be different tonight. I'm going to get you dressed for bed; you can have a drink of water And then we'll pray together. When that is done I'm walking out the door and I don't intend to come back. Don't call me again. I don't want to hear a peep from you until morning. Do you understand?"
Paulie said, "Yes, Daddy."
When the chores were completed, final hugs were exchanged and the lights were turned out. Jim told his son good night and left the room. Sweet silence prevailed in the house. But not for long. In about five minutes, Paulie called his father and asked for another drink of water.
"No way, Paulie," said his dad. "Don't you remember what I said? Now go to sleep."
After several minutes, Paulie appealed again for a glass of water. Jim was more irritated this time. He spoke sharply and advised his son to forget it. But the boy would not be put off. He waited for a few minutes and then re-opened the case. Every time Paulie called his dad, Jim became more irritated. Finally, he said, "If you ask for water one more time I'm going to come in there and spank you!"
That quieted the boy for about five minutes and then he said, "Daddy, when you come in here to spank me would you bring me a glass of water please?"
The kid got the water. He did not get the spanking.
One of the ways of enticing children (perhaps age four to eight) to go to bed is by the use of fantasy. For example, I told my son and daughter about "Mrs. White's Party" when they were little. Mrs. White was an imaginary lady who threw the most fantastic celebrations in the middle of the night. She ran an amusement park that made Disneyland boring by comparison. Whatever was of interest to the children was worked into her repertoire--dogs, cats, sweets of all varieties, water slides, cartoons, thrilling rides and anything else that excited Danae and Ryan's imagination. Of course, the only way they could go to Mrs. White's Party was to be asleep. No one who was awake would ever get an invitation. It was fun to watch our son and daughter jump into bed and concentrate to go to sleep. Though it never happened, I wish I could have generated such interest that they would have actually dreamed about Mrs. White. Usually, the matter was forgotten the next morning.
By hook or crook, fantasy or reality, you must win the great bedtime battle. The health of your child (and maybe your own) is at stake.
The dinner table is another major battlefield of childhood, but it should be avoided. I have strongly advised parents not to get suckered into this arena. It is an ambush. A general always wants to engage the other army in a place where he can win, and mealtime is a lost cause. A mother who puts four green beans on a fork and resolves to sit there until the child eats them is in a powerless position. The child can outlast her. And because meals come around three times a day, he will eventually prevail.
Instead of begging, pleading, bribing and threatening a child, I recommend that good foods be placed before him cheerfully. If he chooses not to eat, then smile and send him on his way. He'll be back. When he returns, take the same food out of the refrigerator, heat it and set it before him again. Sooner or later, he will get hungry enough to eat. Do not permit snacking or substituting sweets for nutritious foods. But also do not fear the physical effects of hunger. A child will not starve in the presence of good things to eat. There is a gnawing feeling inside that changes one's attitude from "Yuck!" to "Yum!", usually within a few hours.
We have already talked about anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders related to parental power. Obviously, food can be the focal point of great struggles between generations.
Perhaps there is no greater source of conflict between generations today than schoolwork, and especially that portion assigned to be done at home. This is another battlefield where all the advantages fall to the youngster. Only he knows for sure what was assigned and how the work is supposed to be done. The difficult child will capitalize on this information gap between home and school, claiming that "I got it all done in school," or "I have nothing to do tonight." He reminds me of the kid who brought home 4 F's and a C on his report card. When his dad asked what he thought the problem was, he said, "I guess I've been concentrating too hard on one subject."
Parents should know that most students go through an academic valley sometime between the sixth and ninth grades in school. Some will quit working altogether during this time. Others will merely decrease their output. Very few will remain completely unaffected. The reason is the massive assault made on adolescent senses by the growing-up process. Self-confidence is shaken to its foundation. Happy hormones crank into action and sex takes over center stage. Who can think about school with all that going o n? Or better yet, who wants to? As parents, you should watch for this diversion and not be dismayed when it comes. We'll discuss the underachiever later in this book.
Vacations and Special Days
Tell me why it is that children are the most obnoxious and irritating on vacations and during other times when we are specifically trying to please them? By all that is fair and just, you would expect them to think, "Boy! Mom and Dad are really doing something nice for us. They are taking us on this expensive vacation when they could have spent the money on themselves. And Dad would probably have preferred to go fishing (that's true) or something else he wanted to do. But they care about us and have included us in their plans. Wow! I'm going to be as nice and cooperative as possible. I'll try to get along with my sister and I won't make any un usual demands. What a fun trip this will be!"
Do kids think that way? Fat chance! There is no such thing as intergenerational gratitude.
Before the family has even left town, the troops are fighting over who gets to sit by the window and which one will hold the dog. Little Sister yells, "I'm telling!" every few minutes. Tensions are also building in the front seat. By the time they get to Phoenix, dad is ready to blow his cork. It was tough enough for him to complete his office work and pack the car. But this bickering is about to drive him crazy. For four hundred miles, he has endured arguments, taunts, jabs, pinches, tears, tattling and unscheduled bathroom breaks. Now he's starting to lose control. Twice he swings wildly at writhing bodies in the back seat. He misses and hurts his shoulder. He's driving faster by this time but he's quit talking. The only clues to what he's feeling are his bloodshot eyes and the occasional twitch in his left cheek. Happy vacation, Pop. You have thirteen days to go.
Recently I received a letter from a mother who had just returned from a stressful vacation similar to the one I described. For days, their two sons had whined and complained, insulting and fighting with each other. They kicked the back of their father's seat for hours at a time. Finally, his fuse burned down to the dry powder. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and jerked the boys outside. Judgment Day had arrived. After spanking them both, he shoved them back into the car and warned them to keep their mouths shut. "If I hear a peep from either of you for thirty minutes," he warned, "I'll give you some more of what you just had!" The boys got the message. They remained mute for thirty minutes, after which the older lad said, "Is it all right to talk now?"
The father said sternly, "Yes. What do you want to say?"
"Well," continued the boy. "When you spanked us back there my shoe fell off. We left it in the road."
It was the only good pair of shoes the kid owned. This time Mom went berserk and flailed at the back seat like a crazy lady. So ended another great day of family togetherness.
Is this the way parents should deal with a period of irritation from their children? Of course not, but let's face it. Parents are people. They have their vulnerabilities and flash points too. The children should have been separated or perhaps offered spankings much earlier in the journey. It is when parents are desperately trying to avoid punishment that their level of irritation reaches a dangerous level. By then, anything can happen. That is why I have contended that those who oppose corporal punishment on the grounds that it leads to child abuse are wrong. By stripping parents of the ability to handle frustrating behavior at an early stage, they actually increase the possibility that harm will be done to children as tempers rise.
Before we leave the matter of family vacations, let's deal with why it is that children seem to become more obnoxious on those special days. There are two good reasons for it. First, adults and children alike tend to get on each other's nerves when they are cooped up together for extended periods of time. But also, a difficult child apparently feels compelled to reexamine the boundaries whenever he thinks they may have moved. This was certainly true of our children. On days when we planned trips to Disneyland, ski trips or other holidays, we could count on them to become testy. It was as though they were obligated to ask, "Since this is a special day, what are the rules now?" We would sometimes have to punish or scold them during times when we were specifically trying to build relationships. Your strong-willed kids may do the same. Perhaps that's why Erma Bombeck said, "The family that plays together gets on one another's nerves."
Other battlefields of early childhood include clothing and hair styles, doing the dishes and household chores, demands for candy and treats in supermarkets, getting up in time to catch the school bus, taking regular baths, talking sassy to mom and keeping the child's room clean. (One mother told me her ten-year-old's bedroom was such a mess that she would have to get a tetanus shot to walk through it.) The number of these routine skirmishes between parents and children is virtually endless. A child can use almost a ny pretext to launch a new crusade--or had you already noticed?
To repeat our thesis, these trouble spots between generations are not simply matters of differing opinion. If the conflicts amounted to no more than that, then negotiation and compromise would resolve them very quickly. Instead, they represent staging areas where the authority of the parent can be challenged and undermined. The question being asked is not so much, "Can I have my way?" as it is, "Who's in charge here?" (Remember, now, that I'm describing the motivation of very strong-willed children. The compliant child is more subtle in his maneuvers for power.)
With the passage of time, the battles do tend to become more intense. What began as relatively minor struggles over bedtime or homework can develop into the most terrible conflicts. Some teenagers put their parents through hell on earth. Deep, searing wounds are inflicted that may never fully heal. For now, however, I want to conclude this discussion by explaining the great significance of power and its ramifications for parents. Everything said to this point is merely prologue to the message in paragraphs that follow. Please give special emphasis to this remaining section as you read.
The sense of power that is so attractive to children and to the rest of humanity is actually a very dangerous thing. Men have deceived, exploited and killed to get it. Those who have achieved it have often been destroyed in its grasp. Lord Acton said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." History has proved him right.
The most bloodthirsty men who ever lived were driven by an insatiable lust for power. In the effort to dominate the world, Adolph Hitler set off a conflagration that claimed fifty million lives. Joseph Stalin is said to have murdered twenty to thirty million people during his reign of terror. On one occasion, Stalin reportedly sent his secret police to the little town where he was raised with orders to kill the teachers who had instructed him as a child. Imagine the brutality! Apparently, he wanted to leave no witnesses to his mediocre beginnings. This is where the lust for power leads when it is unbridled.
Our concern, however, is not limited to the behavior of dictators and despots. Power has a negative effect wherever it comes to rest. I've known many famous physicians and surgeons, for example, who exercised vast authority in the medical community. Patients worshiped them; nurses feared them; colleagues respected them; and friends envied them. They seemed to have it all. But how did this adulation affect their personalities? Did they grow more humble and self-effacing as their ego needs were met? Hardly! They tended to become more infantile in their demands, or they became tyrannical and sought to crush anyone who got in their way.
Notorious physicians are not the only ones who have trouble handling power. The same is true of successful actors, musicians , ministers, lawyers and military generals in times of war. Study the historical profiles of great military generals like George Patton or Douglas MacArthur. Most were proud and arrogant men. A story is told about the haughty British general, Bernard Montgomery, who was giving a speech near the end of his life. He said, "You will remember when God said to Moses there in the wilderness--and I think rightly so--"Who but a commander of armies would dare critique the words of the Lord Himself?
United States presidents have also been known to take themselves too seriously, and Lyndon Johnson was among the worst. During his years in the White House, he was a power monger, terrorizing his aides for their minor mistakes and oversights. I'm told, for example, that he became furious when they forgot to restock the presidential airplane with root beer, his favorite soft drink. "No rut beer!?" he would scream in his Texas drawl. "Whaddaya mean no rut beer?!" He couldn't believe anyone would have the audacity to ignore his whims in this way.
It is interesting that five United States presidents in the twentieth century have won landslide electoral victories and achieved the power to which they were entitled. Predictably, perhaps, all five experienced their greatest crises shortly thereafter: Harding and the Teapot Dome Scandal; Roosevelt and the Supreme Court debacle; Johnson and the Vietnam war; Nixon and the Watergate affair; and Reagan and the Iran-Contra connection. Time after time, history illuminates the destructive nature of raw power. Proverbs 2 7:21 states, "...man is tested by the praise he receives."
Chuck Colson lived through the Watergate debacle that brought down President Richard Nixon. As a senior member of the White House staff during an era when presidential influence was maximal, Colson knew how to use power. He was also quite willing to abuse it. He worked just a few feet from the Oval Office and his orders carried the authority of the president himself. By simply making a phone call, he could send a detachment of troops anywhere in the world. He could have the presidential helicopter land on the White House lawn within minutes to take him where he wished to go. He conferred with the Soviets and with our allies on matters of monumental importance. Yes, Chuck Colson experienced the meaning of political power in all its glory, and his fall from that lofty perch was one of the most dramatic descents in American history.
After his conviction in the Watergate scandal, Colson was sentenced to serve two years in the federal penitentiary at Maxwell Prison Camp in Florida. Upon arrival, this proud governmental leader was systematically shorn of his dignity. He was stripped, searched and dusted for lice. He was placed in an eight-foot cell with a stinking open toilet. A guard came by every two hours and shined a flashlight in his eyes. Colson, who had conferred with prime ministers, emperors and princes, now lived and worked with rapists, murderers, thieves and child molesters. He was utterly powerless for some seven months.
How impressive it is that Chuck Colson chose not to reconstruct his power base when he was released from prison. He could have gone back to his law practice in New York, with its six-figure income, a yacht and the other trappings of opulence. Instead, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries to assist the down-and-outers of the world. Why would a man deny himself in that way?
Because he found a "higher power" in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It totally revolutionized his life. I admire this man greatly and am honored to call him my friend.
If you talk to Chuck Colson today, he will warn you of the dangers of power. He should know. He was nearly destroyed by it. He will also tell you how he manipulated naive Christians when he was in the White House. He dazzled them with presidential power and molded them to his political purposes. Finally, he will remind you that Jesus came without power and consistently resisted His disciples' desire for it. Jesus taught them, "...he who is least among you all--he is the greatest" (Luke 9:48).
Perhaps you have foreseen how this discussion of presidential politics and professional pride is related to the discipline of children, but let me lay it out. If power can be destructive to mature adults who think they know how to handle it, imagine what it will do to a mere child. Think again of the three-year-old boy on the tricycle, described in the second chapter. He had already achieved virtual independence from his mother. There he was, fresh out of babyhood, yet he had become his own boss. That's pretty heady stuff for a kid who's only three feet high. How would he choose to use all that power? Well, for starters he insisted on riding his tricycle down a busy boulevard. He is fortunate that his first taste of freedom didn't put him under the wheels of a 4,000-pound automobile. There will be other risks in future years, of course.
One of the characteristics of those who acquire power very early is a prevailing attitude of disrespect for authority. It extends to teachers, ministers, policemen, judges and even to God Himself. Such an individual has never yielded to parental leadership at home.
Why should he submit himself to anyone else? For a rebellious teenager it is only a short step from there to drug abuse, sexual experimentation, running away, and so on. The early acquisition of power has claimed countless young victims by this very process.
What do we recommend, then? Should parents retain every vestige of power for as long as possible? No! Even with its risks, self-determination is a basic human right and we must grant it systematically to our children. To withhold that liberty too long is to incite wars of revolution. My good friend, Jay Kesler, observed that Mother England made that specific mistake with her children in the American colonies. They grew to become rebellious "teenagers" who demanded their freedom. Still she refused to release them and unnecessary bloodshed ensued. Fortunately, England learned a valuable lesson from that painful experience. Some 171 years later, she granted a peaceful and orderly transfer of power to another tempestuous offspring named India. Revolution was averted.
This, then, is our goal as parents: we must not transfer power too early, even if our children take us daily to the battlefield. Mothers who make that mistake are some of the most frustrated people on the face of the earth. On the other hand, we must not retain parental power too long, either. Control will be torn from our grasp if we refuse to surrender it voluntarily. The granting of self-determination should be matched stride for stride with the arrival of maturity, culminating with complete release during early adulthood.
Sounds easy, doesn't it? We all know better. I consider this orderly transfer of power to be one of the most delicate and difficult responsibilities in the entire realm of parenthood. We'll talk more about the "how to" in subsequent chapters.
From Parenting Isn't for Cowards by Dr. James and Mrs. Shirley Dobson
Copyright © 1987. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.