Parenting Without Power Struggles

Raising joyful, resilient kids while staying calm and connected

"Clean" Parenting

How our hidden agendas get in the way of motivating kids to cooperate.

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when I’m doing a parenting presentation has to do with getting kids to do things, like going to bed, getting ready for school, doing their homework, etc. This category of parenting struggles is an equal opportunity challenge, applying as much (if not more dramatically) to parents of 17-year olds as it does to parents of 7-year olds.

What I know for sure is that whenever we come at our child or teen from a place of force, we activate their instincts to resist, even more so when the connection between us is weak or fractured.

This is why I place so much emphasis in my book and my work on building—and maintaining—those elements of attachment that predispose a child towards wanting to cooperate. Within the context of closeness, we activate an impulse to please the other, even overriding our own preference to do something else. This is not to say that if you and your child are feeling especially close, they’ll rush to turn off the TV when you ask them to start their homework, or eagerly clear the dishes from the table after dinner. Kids are essentially egocentric and hedonistic; they are biased toward enjoying themselves as much as possible at every moment, and more often than not, the things we want them to do aren’t always much fun.

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But the first bit about cooperation has to do with connection. The second, as I mentioned, has to do with coming alongside, rather than at our child. Or our parent. Or our mother-in-law, neighbor, boyfriend or boss. Resistance—and it’s bedfellow, brute defiance—is activated when we feel someone comingat us, outside of the context of connection.

Sometimes when I’m addressing parents’ questions about getting kids to do things, I refer to these ideas as “clean” and “dirty” parenting. “Clean” parenting is about approaching a child without an undercurrent of manipulation or neediness. It presumes that we are, in fact, that Captain of the ship I refer to, and that our request comes from strength rather than desperation. 

“Dirty” parenting, on the other hand, involves bribes and threats, dirty looks, bad vibes and sarcasm. It feels, well, kind of dirty—to not only the child, but to us. We feel we’ve compromised our integrity or behaved in ways that are beneath us when we’ve resorted to Dirty parenting. And while we may get what we want, this approach—coming atthe child by trying to control them—can erode the goodwill and connection between us.

Believe me, Clean parenting is hard. It’s much harder to reach for truth, to speak with respect, to listen open-heartedly to a child’s point of view about things than to simply overpower them.

And I’m not suggesting, by the way, that there are never times when you will have to simply state your position, and live through the storm of their reaction. 

But what I have discovered—and continue to discover as I parent—is that as much as I am willing to stretch to negotiate the difficult moments by coming alongside rather than at, the better it works out in the long run.

It’s not easy, but figuring out how to stay connected while navigating differing vantage points is an inevitable part of the ride. The cleaner we make it, the bigger our hearts — and our children's — can open, as we move with grace and dignity through the ups and downs along the way.

Susan Stiffelman is a family therapist and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected



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