I would venture to say that the see-saw model of parenting, based on mutual respect, is not the one most of us have known. I would call the more familiar model the Up-Down Model.
You may recall this well-known Robert Louis Stevenson poem from childhood.
How do you like to go up in a swing?
Up in the air so blue
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.
Up in the air and over the wall
Till I can see so wide
Rivers and trees and valleys and all
Over the country side.
I learned this poem as a child and love the way it captures the feeling of swinging through the air without a care in the world. On a sweet summer day with the wind in our hair it is surely the closest thing to flying. It is a perfect example of the wonderful fantasy that moves us effortlessly during the days of our youth. We forget that someone is pushing us, or even if we remember we don’t acknowledge them in any way. Isn’t that what it means to be a child? We grow and learn. We take on increasing responsibilities. But we don’t really recognize that there is another person behind the scenes—helping, explaining, and making the rules.
The up-down model provides us with the seemingly carefree days of childhood but it has some problems. The child is the passive recipient of care and instruction with limited decision-making opportunities. This model also implies a hierarchy in which the parents traditionally set the rules and the children obey them. Or, as in those comedy shows in which the roles have switched and the children are in charge, the nanny or parent must step in to save the day. In some chaotic family situations nobody sets the rules.
But the point of this model is that there are rules to be set and power struggles to be won. In this view parenting is about controlling and shaping the child to conform to preconceived notions of how children and, eventually, adults are meant to turn out. Too often these preconceived notions come at the expense of the energy and the unique essence of the developing child. Some theorists say that if parents win the children are happy. But the parents’ “triumph” can also frequently set the stage for the child’s deep personal discontent and later rebellion or withdrawal. If children win a power struggle, no one is happy and chaos reigns, because children are overwhelmed by the burden of power and the lack of a guiding structure. The child in that situation may attempt to gain more power in order to feel secure, and thus a vicious circle ensues.
The difficulties with the up/down model lie in its asymmetry. One person is working and the other is carefree. One person wins and the other loses. One person knows all the answers and the other very little. This model is lacking in reciprocity, and therefore makes it impossible for two people—parent and child—to share information, bring the best ideas to bear on their situation and come to know each other as individuals. Unfortunately it also sets the stage for dominance/submission; us versus them; out groups and in groups and all the accoutrements of prejudice and bigotry. Next time we’ll look at the ways that we start to build a parenting model based on mutual respect.
Arguing parents image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 4 Jul 2013