"Dad, can I go to my friend's house for the night?" "Dad, do you know where my shoes are?" "Dad, what does 'mellow' mean?" "Dad, my tummy is sore." "Dad, can I have something to eat?" "Dad, can I buy a book?" "Dad, can we go to the library?"
So many questions, every day. Each one asks me to use the power I have as a parent: knowledge, money, emotional support, food and transport. These powers are part of being an adult. But frequently I am tempted to use them to influence my kids' behaviour. "If you can't stop whingeing, go to your room." "No pocket money if you don't do your homework." "Get that thumb out of your mouth or it will drop off." "Eat your vegies, otherwise no dessert." "What do you say? 'Thank you' - that's right." "You can't wear that to school!" "Don't go up there, you'll fall." "Stop picking your nose." "I've warned you many times not to do that - next time you'll get a smack." "Listen to me, I'm your father." "Stop fighting you two, or you'll both go to bed early - you're obviously tired." "You're not going out until you've tidied your room."
I believe that these kind of responses are an abuse of power. I grew up with the idea that "discipline" was the job of the Dad in the home. This was based on the belief that the father was the head of the house, with authority to punish. Punishment might consist of physical force, containment, withdrawal of emotional support, withholding of money or food, or threats of these things. Another variation on this occurs when I start thinking in terms of "training" kids, that shrewdly applying positive and negative reinforcements will produce kids as I want them.
I try not to use punishment - it is degrading to kids and leads to the coercive use of power within intimate relationships. Instead, I am in favour of power-sharing and the unimpeded experience of natural consequences.
Power-sharing means gradually handing over knowledge, responsibility, money and physical space to kids early in their lives, taking risks but trusting them to learn from their own mistakes. In practice this means explaining lots of things to them, letting them have their own money to spend, allowing them to have complete control over some space in their home (eg their bedroom), showing them how to prepare their own food, encouraging them to take on major jobs around the house, and letting them use the phone independently. All of this as they are ready for it and it is often sooner than we think.
Natural consequences are the repercussions that flow from choices. If someone spends their money on a toy that breaks, the money is gone. If their room is in a mess, they may not be able to find all their favourite things. If kids directly experience consequences, there is probably no need for my intervention at all. My experience is that kids learn lots from their own mistakes, so long as their space is not too cluttered with adult admonitions. In addition, it can be tempting to impose my own artificial consequences but this would be punishment under another name.
In short, my vision is to use power as an adult male parent, not to dominate, but to enrich the lives of those around me, especially kids.
First published in the magazine XY: Men, Sex, Politics. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995