A constant power struggle
What do we want for ourselves and our children? When we ask this question in our workshops, we always hear the same answers: respect, care, cooperation and responsibility. Sadly, the picture we get from parents talking about their daily lives is different. We hear of parents in conflict with their children around everyday activities such as going to sleep, waking up, doing housework and homework. They seem to be engaged in a constant power struggle with their children.
A child’s autonomy
How does this come about? One thing we’ve noticed is that when parents try to get what they want by making demands, and backing them up with punishments and rewards, children respond in kind, fiercely protecting their autonomy. Two crucial areas that children learn they can take charge of early on are: when they sleep and what (and when) they eat. Try as they might, their parents can’t make them sleep or eat. Sometimes, a child’s need for autonomy is so strong that they will go without these basic needs in order to assert control over their lives.
Why punishment doesn’t work
When we’re sharing Nonviolent Communication with parents, we ask two questions. If we just ask the first question: What do I want my children to do? it seems practical and realistic to use threats of punishment and promises of reward to motivate our children. And sometimes, parents find that they do get what they want in this way.
However, when we ask the second question: What do I want my child’s reason to be for doing it? parents realize why they are so unhappy with their family’s interactions. Their children are doing what they are told because they are afraid of being punished if they don’t, not because they understand why – either for their parents or for themselves.
Parents we’ve met say that they want to support their children to develop strong characters and the skills to make decisions for themselves – yet none of this can happen when children are acting out of fear of blame or punishment.
Taking everybody’s needs into consideration
So what’s an alternative to punishment and reward as a way of supporting respect, care, cooperation and responsibility in your family? We suggest to parents that they model how to take one’s own needs and the needs of others into consideration – in their daily interactions with their children.
When Lilli (Christa’s eldest daughter) was eleven, she started changing what she ate. One day she said she wouldn’t eat cooked vegetables any more. Christa didn’t give it much thought – Lilli was experimenting with all sorts of things, and she’d probably change back in a few days. But Lilli stuck to her decision and, after a few days, her sister Mona (who was then nine) started to do the same.
At that point, Christa got alarmed, and at the same time, she wanted to try to apply the Nonviolent Communication process that she was learning. So she ‘Took a Time In’ – as we described in the last issue of Juno. She got in touch with what was important to her in the situation, which was to support and nourish her children in a balanced, healthy way.
When she was clear and grounded in this, she said to Lilli and Mona, “When I see that you’ve both stopped eating cooked vegetables, I’m really worried, because I want to support you to be healthy.”
Lilli replied, “I don’t want to eat things I don’t like! You can’t make me!”
Christa switched to hearing what was going on for Lilli: “Do you want to make your own choices about what you eat – to be your own boss?”
“No – I just want to enjoy eating and being the way I am.”
Christa was aware that sometimes it helps just to repeat what the other person has said, so she said, “Do you really want to enjoy eating and being how you are?”
Christa paused for a few seconds to enjoy the sense of connection, and then said, “I really want to take what’s important to you into account. And I wonder how I can also support you to be healthy. Could we find a way to do that?”
“As long as I don’t have to eat things I don’t like.”
“OK – tell me what we can do.”
“If there’s a salad every day, and fruit, and raw carrots – I like those – then I’ll be healthy enough.”
Christa wasn’t sure, so she said, “OK – let’s try it for a week.”
Mona agreed too, and after a week, Christa could see that they were still getting enough fresh food, so it worked for all of them.
In this dialogue, Christa chose first to express herself (I’m really worried… I want to support you to be healthy). Lilli didn’t have the space to hear her Mum’s concern, so Christa chose to empathise to establish the connection (Do you want to make your own choices? and finally Do you really want to enjoy eating and being how you are?) When Lilli had a sense that she was being heard, and that her needs mattered to her Mum, she opened up to hearing her Mum’s needs, at the same time as standing up for her own. She was willing to cooperate (If there’s salad every day, and fruit… then I’ll be healthy enough).
‘No dessert until you’ve eaten your greens’
A few weeks later, Christa’s parents came to visit. Her mother saw that the girls wouldn’t eat cooked vegetables, and tried to change their minds by saying that they wouldn’t get any dessert. Lilli said nothing. Christa’s mother turned to Christa and said, “You should make them eat! I didn’t let you leave the table until you’d eaten your greens.”
Christa ‘Took a Time In’ to empathise silently for a few minutes with her own painful memories from that time. Then she listened to mother, and eventually they came on her mother’s need to support her children, so that they would be accepted into society. And the particular indication for this was eating what was on the table. When her mother had been heard, she relaxed, and was willing to listen to the agreement that had been made between Christa and the girls. Christa rejoiced that she had the skills to stay connected with her mother, with herself and support her children to practice cooperation in all areas of their lives.
© Shantigarbha and Christa Gronow. This article originally appeared in natural parenting magazine Juno, and has been lightly edited for context.