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Parenting: turning conflict into cooperation

A constant power struggle

What do we want for ourselves and our children? When we ask this question in our parenting workshops, we always hear the same answers: respect, care, cooperation and responsibility. Sadly, the picture we get from people talking about their daily parenting lives is different. We hear of parents in conflict with their children around everyday activities. Whether that’s going to sleep, waking up, doing housework or homework. They were engaged in a constant power struggle with their children.

A child’s autonomy

How does this come about? 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 1) Bedtime and 2) Mealtimes. Try as they might, their parents can’t make them sleep or eat. Sometimes, a child’s need for autonomy is so strong, they will go without these basic needs to assert control over their lives.

Why punishment in parenting doesn’t work

When we’re sharing Nonviolent Communication with parents, we ask two questions. If we just ask the first question ‘What do you want your children to do?’ it seems practical and realistic to use threats of punishment and promises of reward to motivate your children. And sometimes parents find that they do get what they want in this way.

However, when we ask the second question, ‘What do you want your 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.

parent holding their child

Taking everybody’s needs into consideration

So what’s an alternative to parenting without punishment and reward? By modelling how we take our own and others needs into consideration, in our daily interactions with our children.

Angela was learning NVC to improve her communication with her two daughters. When Lily (Angela’s eldest) was eleven, she started changing what she ate. One day she said she wouldn’t eat cooked vegetables any more. Angela didn’t give it much thought. Lily was experimenting with all sorts of things, and she’d probably change back in a few days. But Lily stuck to her decision and, after a few days, her sister Sarah (who was then nine) started to do the same.

At that point, Angela 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’ – did some self-connection. 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.

From Conflict Parenting to Compassionate Parenting

When she was clear and grounded in this, she said to Lily and Sarah, “When I see that you’ve both stopped eating cooked vegetables, I’m really worried, because I want to support you to be healthy.”

Lily replied, “I don’t want to eat things I don’t like! You can’t make me!”

Angela immediately switched to hearing what was going on for Lily, “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.”

Angela was aware that sometimes it helps just to repeat what the other person has said, so they really know that they’ve been heard, so she said, “Do you really want to enjoy eating and being how you are?”


Angela 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.”

“Okay, 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.”

Angela wasn’t sure, so she said, “Okay, let’s try it for a week.”

Sarah agreed too, and after a week, Angela could see that they were still getting enough fresh food, so it worked for all of them.

How did that work?

In this dialogue, Angela chose first to express herself (I’m really worried… I want to support you to be healthy). Lily didn’t have the space to hear her Mum’s concern, so Angela 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 Lily 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).

Learn these skills online

To learn these compassionate parenting skills for yourself and your family, join our Online Compassionate Parenting 6-week course here, starting on Thursday 15 October, 2020.