Power and Choice

I remember listening to a friend ask her toddler, "Wouldn't you like me to change your diaper now?" I remember wincing internally, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt what the answer would be. And there it came, a resounding, unequivocal "NO!" Phrasing it as a question forced my friend into a tight spot. Now she had two bad options. She could respect her daughter's clearly-solicited and clearly-stated preference and let her live in a diaper that needed to be changed. Or she could turn around and say, essentially, "Having asked what you want and gotten the wrong answer, I'm now going to do what I was planning all along, regardless of what you want."

My rough and ready rule of thumb to avoid such situations is a simple one. If you know in advance what the outcome is going to be, don't ask. If I know that my plan is a diaper change, whether she likes it or not, then there's no point in seeing if I can get her permission. In a way it seems disrespectful not to ask, but it seems even more disrespectful to offer the illusion of choice, when, in reality, I control the outcome.

"Your diaper needs to be changed. We can do it in this room or that room. We can do it now or in five minutes." Sometimes having some bit of real choice that will be respected, even though the larger situation is predetermined, helps to smooth the way. It's always worth a try. But at other times--a distressingly large number in my experience--the child intuitively grasps where the power really lies and is not appeased by these crumbs.

At this point, it works best for me to address the power issue straight on. "I know you don't want me to change your diaper, and I know it doesn't seem fair to you that I get to decide. But there are some times when moms do the deciding, and this is one of them. You don't have to like it, but that's the situation." (I don't know if I've ever actually said all that, but it probably wouldn't be a bad idea.) There's often a storm of feelings at that point, and I'm acutely aware of using my size to impose my will. But I'm comforted, somehow, by the fact that we're dealing openly with reality; we're calling a spade a spade.

I wonder how much this impulse to try to get our children's agreement, have things be "nice", blur over hard realities is a middle class phenomenon. Those of us who are (relatively) assured of meeting our children's essential needs for food, housing, and medical care, can invest more energy, worry, time, etc. in trying to make them happy. And raw power conflicts certainly don't seem an appropriate part of "nice", "happy" families.

But raw power conflict seems to be an inevitable part of raising children. We can minimize the amount of it by giving children more real power, treating them with more respect, and being willing to bend to their preferences as they bend to ours. But we can't eliminate that conflict altogether, and coming to terms with it probably works better for everybody that trying to pretend that it isn't there.

As I talk with children about the power that adults wield, the part that I find most reassuring is the part when I say that they don't have to like it. I can make them do things, it's true. But I'm not telling them to give up wanting what they want. I'm not asking them to pretend to be happy when they're not. I'm not expecting them to like it. At least I'm respecting their internal reality, and, given the power dynamic, that may be the best I can do.