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Choose Your Battles

I was sitting in a coffee shop, waiting for a friend, when from behind me there arose a great hue and cry.

"Matthew, it's cold out  -- you have to wear your mittens."


"Put on your mittens like a good boy and Mommy will give you a cookie."


Now Dad, in a commanding tone: "Matthew, put on your mittens right this instant."

"I won't!"

Dad to Mom: "Hold him while I shove them on."

This was the toddler's cue to start wailing in earnest.

Mom to little boy: "Fine, don't wear them. If your hands get cold, it's your problem."

Dad to Mom again: "It's freezing outside. He'll get frostbite."

Mom to Dad: "If his hands get cold, he'll put the mittens on. Come on, everybody's staring. We have to get him out of here."

The family blessedly packed up and left the restaurant, both parents frazzled and Matthew still screaming and resisting the mittens. Their exchange had been painful to listen to  -- and that was an edited version-partly because the emotions ran so high, to so little effect, and over such a small thing. And partly because I'd been in exactly that place myself, far too painfully and inextricably, with my own first child.

Power struggle. The words popped into my head before the family was even out the door. I'd never been able to identify it when I was locked into one with my own small and willful daughter, but that's clearly what this was.

Contributing editor Pamela Redmond Satran's most recent novel, Suburbanistas (Downtown Press), came out in March 2006.

Anatomy of a power struggle

At its most basic, a power struggle is a battle for control, with parent and child duking it out over which one gets to decide what the child eats or wears, how he spends time or what he plays with, where he goes and when. The key ingredient, though, is that the actual object of the dispute is often not its crux. Usually, either the child is pushing for control beyond his years or capabilities, or the parent's holding on tight to control something that would be better ceded to the child.

There are other earmarks that distinguish a power struggle from a run-of-the-mill discipline problem, says Jan Faull, a Seattle-based parenting educator and author of Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles With Your Kids Ages 2 to 10.

Typically, emotions run much higher than the issue  -- whether eating peas or wearing a tutu to preschool  -- would seem to merit. Your child objects to a simple request, and you ("It's the principal of the thing!") decide that you're just not going to put up with this insubordination. Unfortunately, if the battles become a pattern and occur again and again without being resolved, they can come to characterize, and undermine, your relationship.

Like the parents in the restaurant, I tried everything I could think of  -- bribing, begging, insisting, threatening, ignoring  -- to get my daughter to do what I wanted, all to no avail. Was I a bad mother, or was she a difficult kid? And were we simply destined to drive each other crazy?

Why bad battles happen to good parents

I always wondered why I wrestled so with my oldest child, Rory, while largely escaping such strife with her two younger brothers, and I invented complicated theories to account for it: my relative inexperience as a parent; because she was a girl and I was hesitant to lay down the law with her like I did with her brothers; the other way around  -- I was stricter with her because she was a girl, like me, and I went easier on the boys. But the reasons were likely more straightforward than that  -- and they are for you as well:

Some kids are just more determined to grab control at a younger age and so are more likely to end up in battles with their parents. "Such kids just wear you out," says Faull. "You love them, but they're the future CEOs: They have very clear ideas about how things should be, but they're sitting at home being told what to do by their parents."

"Our oldest child always has an opinion about what she wants to do," says Jill Goodrich, an Amarillo, Texas, mom of a 4-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 2 years and 6 months. "I want her to have an independent spirit, and I know these qualities of taking the initiative and having a mind of her own are things I'll love as she gets older. But now she tries to dictate what we ought to do as a family, and it can make life very difficult."

And some situations may provoke power struggles with kids who are normally mild-mannered and compliant: My usually laid-back older son, Joe, rebelled at going to nursery school when he just wanted to stay home with Mom.

Most kids, even those with less assertive personalities, are likely to engage in power struggles when they hit a stage of development that makes them seek more self-control, commonly around age 2 (and again in adolescence).

Physical depletion
And then there are those power struggles that arise when a child is hungry, stressed, or tired, so her emotions escalate until they're out of hand.

"I was at the mall the other day and I saw a mother begging a little girl to get in the car, and the child was sobbing because there was something in the store she wanted," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a Minneapolis family educator and author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime. "You could tell by the child's body language and voice that she was exhausted; odds are she'd missed her nap that day. So forgo basic needs like that at your own risk."

It's essential, before you respond, to figure out what's really fueling the battle. There's always the chance it's you.

Sometimes it is your fault

A dad I know used to engage every morning in a power struggle with his now 6-year-old daughter over what she was going to wear to preschool. The girl didn't want to get dressed, or wanted to wear a sleeveless dress in the middle of winter, or tights and boots in the heat of summer, or mix the purple plaid with the orange polka dots  -- the specifics changed from day to day. My friend and his wife tried to limit the number of clothing options and tried choosing outfits the night before  -- they tried everything, yet somehow every day started with a veritable donnybrook over the little girl's outfit.

Finally, the proverbial lightbulb blinked on. Instead of wondering why his daughter was locked in this battle, my friend began to think about why he was. He realized that he was more worried about what people would think of him when they saw his daughter's outfits than about any real health or safety issues. If he let go of his need to control what she wore, then the power struggle would be over and mornings would be much happier. And so they were.

Since there's little you can do to change your child's sensitivity, adaptability, persistence, and need for routine, you may for the time being need to adapt a bit. A child who's both emotional and slow to adjust to change, for instance, the way my youngest son, Owen, is, may need a five-minute heads up before transitions (rather than having Mom barrel in without warning to announce that "we have to leave  -- now!").

Still, for even the best-intentioned parent with the most ingenious solutions, power struggles happen. What then?

To stop the strife

You have three choices to deal with any power struggle: back off, lay down the law, or negotiate. The trick is figuring out when to use which.

Back off
This might be the smartest choice when the control your child wants is appropriate for her age and skill level and it ultimately doesn't matter. Knowing that you want to cede some control to your child can help you simply step away from some fights before they happen.

It may be easier to do this with second and third children rather than firstborns because with experience, parents learn that some issues simply aren't worth the battle. With my younger two, for instance, I was more likely to let them veg out in front of cartoons or leave the beans on their plate, knowing that over time they'd get tired of TV and make healthier eating choices.

It also makes sense to back off over issues you're not going to win on, no matter what you say or do. Ultimately, you can't force your kids to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, speak, or think according to your wishes. So just set safe, healthy rules and back off. Won't sleep? Fine, just lie there. Won't eat any dinner? Fine, but no cookies, either.

Lay down the law
Insisting your child follow your orders works only if you aren't wishy-washy about it and don't get lured into a lengthy debate about your decision. So dig in only on truly important things, where the lesson a child might learn from disregarding your advice isn't as important as the danger in doing so: "You're wearing your shoes because there's broken glass here, and that's final." Then don't give in.

"Saying 'You're doing it my way because I'm the parent and I said so' works best with health, safety, and value issues," says Faull. Those things are clearly the parent's choice. "With other things, children need to be able to slowly grasp the reins of life and even learn from mistakes. The best route is usually to offer choices and decisions appropriate to the child's age."

Negotiate, compromise, give options
These are all ways to meet a fighter halfway. But don't feel you have to provide unlimited choices  -- your child can't choose candy for breakfast, after all: "You don't want to leave the playground? Okay, we can stay twenty more minutes, but then we won't have time to go to the video store, so you'll have to decide which you want more."

Whichever path you choose in dealing with the power struggle, it's vital to downshift the emotional intensity. If you can step back from the emotions on your end, chances are your child will follow.

Let your first step be to pause. Stopping your agitated response encourages your child to stop, too, because there's no argument going on. Then you can decide which of the three resolution tactics  -- backing off, laying down the law, or negotiating  -- you're going to take.

The gray zone

Many parents report wrestling with their children over constantly shifting issues  -- a battle over clothing choices morphs into a breakfast fight that shifts into resistance over leaving the house  -- and say their kids are clever enough combatants to press when they sense their parents are too weak to resist.

"Especially when there's a new baby sibling, you're so exhausted it's like, 'I know I should send you to your room, but I'm just going to give you the cookie, I'm just going to give in,'" says Jill Goodrich.

But maybe giving in is the smartest tack at that moment. "If you're wiped out, under a lot of stress, that's not the time to hold the line on anything that isn't critically important," says Faull.

In other words: Give yourself and your child a break. You might say something like "We've all had a hard day, so I'm going to say yes to the cookie as a special treat. But usually we don't eat cookies before dinner." And saying the occasional yes can make it easier to say  -- and enforce  -- the customary no.

So what about that little boy in the restaurant who didn't want to wear his mittens? There was a potential health and safety issue  -- it was cold outside  -- but the family's car wasn't far away, so the issue wasn't so clear-cut. And the parents were also under pressure, being in a crowded restaurant with a screaming child  -- a child who was undoubtedly under equal pressure from being cooped up in a toddler-unfriendly establishment.

The parents could have offered the boy the choice of wearing his mittens or being carried to the car so he could keep his hands warm against his mom, though a toddler might not be able to understand that kind of choice and resist both options.

But in this case, "the most logical solution might just have been to say, 'Let's walk outside and see how cold it is, and then you can decide if you want your mittens,'" suggests Kurcinka. "Chances are, if he got cold he'd want to put them on." This is what the mother ended up saying, so the whole thing could have been avoided if she'd simply started out there. The parents lost sight of the fact that in a suburban parking lot the stakes were pretty low.

Even those power struggles without clear-cut solutions offer a chance to show your child how to solve problems, to teach him that you're a family that tackles conflicts and moves on. It's a lesson that's certainly worth at least a few restaurant tantrums.