Parent Power: The Issue of Control

Parent Power:
The Issue of Control

In 1991 Thomas Gordon published a wonderful book, Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children. It’s full of wisdom and sound advice about the futility of parental power and control methods.

Twenty-one years earlier, 1970, he had published his excellent book, Parent Effectiveness Training. The only people who have been listening to him, apparently, are parents. (I have rarely seen him quoted or referred to by experts.) Thank goodness parents have been listening though! Many thousands have attended his parent effectiveness training workshops.He must be doing something right, even if very few experts quote him or appear to subscribe to his ideas.

Gordon clearly spells out the many problems associated with parental use of power and control methods to get children to behave. In this excerpt from PET, he talks about adolescents, but the point he is making is applicable to pre-teens and toddlers too.

Gordon says:

I am now convinced that most theories about the “stress and strain of adolescence” have focused incorrectly on such factors as the adolescent’s physical changes, his emerging sexuality, his new social demands, his struggle between being a child and an adult, and so on. This period is difficult for children and parents largely because the adolescent becomes so independent of his parents that he can no longer be easily controlled by their rewards and punishments. And since most parents rely so heavily on rewards and punishment, adolescents react with much independent, resistive, rebellious, hostile behavior.

Parents assume that adolescent rebellion and hostility are inevitably a function of this stage of development. I think this is not valid–it is more that the adolescent becomes more able to resist and rebel. He is no longer controlled by his parents’ rewards because he does not need them so much; and he is immune to threats of punishment because there is little they can do to give him pain or strong discomfort. The typical adolescent behaves as he does because he has acquired enough strength and resources to satisfy his own needs and enough of his own power so that he need not fear the power of his parents.

An adolescent, therefore, does not rebel against his parents. He rebels against their (use of) power. If parents would rely less on power and more on nonpower methods to influence their children from infancy on, there would be little for the child to rebel against when he becomes an adolescent. The use of power to change the behavior of children, then, has this severe limitation: parents inevitably run out of power, and sooner than they think.

I (CA) don’t think it can be said any more clearly. The clear and unmistakable message from Gordon is that rather than gaining power by trying to control, parents lose it–if not sooner, then later.

However, I would state it even stronger than he does: if your child is not by nature compliant, then you throw your power away when you try to control her behavior. It’s a serious mistake, and there are better ways to go about raising a responsible, cooperative child by using your real power, which is influence.

My New School approach to “how to be a parent” is entriely consistent with Gordon’s thinking. I consider myself in good company.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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