Most parents have had the experience at one time or another of their child having too much power in the family. This can happen in different ways, at different times, for different reasons, but it always feels terrible – for parents and kids. When we feel competent as parents, being around our children is often a source of pleasant emotional experiences. This helps us to feel attached to our kids, which in turn allows us to be more attuned to them. The more attuned we are, the more competent we are likely to feel, and thus a virtuous cycle takes effect.
Each child goes through stages when he is more difficult than at others, and some children are more challenging to parent overall. If we have a challenging child, or are in a difficult period as we parent, it may be hard to feel as connected as usual. When we feel guilty, anxious, overwhelmed, depressed or depleted, we may lose touch with our sense of competence. When we feel less competent, time spent with our child is likely to evoke anxiety, resentment, or even fear. These feelings will likely make it harder for us to respond in an attuned way, probably causing us to feel less effective and competent. If this continues, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle. When we are caught in such a cycle, we may find ourselves feeling disempowered.
New York psychotherapist Sean Grover has explored parenting styles that can foster this kind of out-of-balance power dynamic between parents and kids. According to Grover, parents who are guilty, anxious, or have a tendency to do everything for their children may be tipping the balance of power in favor of the child.
Fear is one of the biggest factors that can undermine our sense of competence and authority in our parenting role. When we are afraid for our or children or of our children, we will be more likely to give into demands, even when it is not appropriate to do so. Cultural trends that urge us to privilege the child’s perspective can be helpful in some contexts, but may also be taken too far, encouraging us to relinquish our authority. This can create confusion and distress on the part of the child, who suddenly finds herself burdened with too much power.
When We Can’t Say “No”
A remarkable Bohemian fairy tale called “The Wooden Baby” illustrates a dynamic in which parents have temporarily lost control
The Wooden Baby
Once upon a time, there was a poor couple who had no children. The people in the village said that the couple was lucky that God did not give them a child, because they had barely enough to feed themselves, but the couple wanted a baby all the same. One day, the husband was chopping wood in the forest, and came upon a tree stump that looked like a baby. He trimmed it a little with his axe, and scooped out holes for the eyes, and when he was done, the stump looked just like a real little child.
He took the stump home, and gave it to his wife, who wrapped it up like a baby, and cradled it in her arms. Suddenly, the stump began wriggling. The stump baby opened his eyes, and said, “I’m so hungry!”
The mother was overcome with joy. She rushed to the kitchen and cooked the stump baby some food. The wooden baby ate all the food she offered in just a moment, and bellowed loudly for more. The woman offered him more food, and he gobbled that up, and yelled for more. Soon, there was no more food left in the house. The woman went about frantically to all of her neighbors borrowing loaves of bread and jugs of milk, but the stump baby ate the food as fast as she could bring it, and yelled loudly for more.
All this time, he was growing and growing very quickly, until he had a big round belly and stood a head taller than his mother. When she could no longer appease him quickly enough, he opened his great mouth wide, and swallowed her whole. When his father came home a little while later, the giant stump baby ate him too.
The more he ate, the hungrier and greedier he grew. Since there was no more food in the cottage, he stumbled out into the village. Along the road he met a dairy maid and a peasant, and he ate them too.
At last, he found his way to a field where an old woman was hoeing cabbages. He quickly began pulling up the heads of cabbage one at a time and stuffing them into his mouth. “Stop eating my cabbages and damaging my field!” said the old woman firmly. “You have had more than enough to eat!”
The wooden baby sneered at her and tried to eat her, but the old woman struck him with her hoe, slicing open his stomach. The wooden baby fell dead to the ground, and the peasant and the milkmaid and the man and the woman all climbed out, unharmed.
The poor man and woman lived happily together for the rest of their days, and never once wished again for a baby!
This is certainly a fairy tale that unabashedly takes on the dark side of parenting – those times that caring for our child leaves us drained and overwhelmed. Though there are many themes to explore in this wonderfully interesting tale, (and I have written about some of them elsewhere), the one I want to lift up here is how parents who feel powerless to set limits can find themselves in a situation where the child is calling the shots.
I have worked with many parents who were concerned that setting a limit with their child would cause harm. It can indeed be very alarming to see our children melt down in the face of our firm “no.” However, just as the wooden baby became greedier the more he ate, when we respond without limit to our child’s desires, we stoke an outsized sense of entitlement.
It is telling that all it takes in the end is for one person to stand up to him with firmness. Usually, taking a firm stand is indeed that which punctures the inflated demandingness of the bully. When we as parents are able to reconnect with our authority, we can set the limits our children need, bringing them back down to size, and restoring family harmony.
“The Wooden Baby” is from Erben, K. J. Tales from Bohemia
To learn more about how fairy tales help us understand ourselves better, join my mailing list.