I believe that there are three different things you can choose to do with your power as an adult, and those three things affect how you relate to other adults, they affect how nourishing or harmful your relationships are, and they affect how your children relate to you and how they grow up.
In addition, the three things will affect your capacity to be truly, deeply happy in your life – a state that requires self-respect, self-esteem and compassion.
You may choose to use your power to control other people. This is an abuse of your power and most people learn this choice after having had other people use their power to control them. It comes from having very little self-respect and very low self-esteem.
It doesn’t make people happy to use their power to control other people, although on the surface it may feel like it does. It’s a little like ‘retail therapy’ – it can feel good in the moment, but you soon feel rotten and your self-respect decreases even more.
People who use their power to control others are telling people “I don’t trust myself or the world, but I feel less scared when I am in charge. I also have no respect for you, and you should do what I want”.
You may choose to hand your power over to someone else. Even if that person isn’t the sort of person who would like to control you, by handing over your power to them, you are inviting them to treat you with little respect and compassion. People who choose to do this with their power also have little self-respect and low self-esteem, and are saying to the people they hand their power to “I am worthless, and you should treat me that way”.
The third thing you may choose to do with your power, and the most healthy thing, is to live in it. When you live in your power you tell the world “I am important, and worthy and so are you” and you invite people to treat you that way and don’t allow them to treat you any differently.
How you choose to use your power may change from one day to the next, and from one year to the next, particularly if you are in a highly charged occupation like parenting. Many parents, myself included, swing wildly from using their power to control their children, to handing their power to their children on a plate. Neither is healthy or helpful to children and to family life.
Consider this: When I was at school, there were clearly three different types of teachers, who had three different effects on their pupils. Some teachers felt deep down that they were pathetic and weak and they project that to us on a daily basis. They handed their power over to us, and we ran riot with it, as children are wont to do. We did what we were told.
These teachers ‘told’ us that they were not worthy of respect, and we believed them and didn’t respect them. These were the teachers who handed out punishments left, right and centre, over and over again, with very little effect. They were the teachers that were laughed at and teased by their pupils.
Other teachers felt that they should be respected just because they were older and bigger than us kids. They enjoyed stalking around the corridors looking for trouble-makers, and handing out harsh punishments whenever they had the chance.
These were the teachers who used their power to control their pupils. The effect? We were scared of them. We didn’t respect them, or like them. Their approach didn’t make us any more likely to behave, just more likely to hide our bad behaviour from them, and to do the bare minimum to keep them happy.
We only did what we were told because we were forced to, not because we had learned any moral reason for doing so. If their backs were turned, we delighted in breaking the rules. I think we have fewer of these teachers nowadays when schools are barred from using some of the particularly cruel punishments that have been used in the past. Or rather, these teachers have fewer opportunities to really use their power to control their pupils.
The last group of teachers respected themselves and they respected us as people, and we knew it. They stayed in their power and, by doing so, taught us to stay in ours. In return, we automatically liked and respected them.
Very few punishments were handed out by these teachers, not because we were scared of these teachers (Mr Boyd is the one I remember the most fondly), but because we hated the thought of losing their good opinion.
We worked hard for these teachers, and wanted to do well. When their backs were turned, we carried on doing what we’d been asked to do.
Do you have memories of teachers like I describe? I could sit down and make a list of all the teachers I had and sort them neatly into all three categories. And what have I learnt from them? Or rather, what have I learnt from realising this about power?
I have learnt that it is vital that we remain in our power as parents. We must respect ourselves if we want to have any chance of our children respecting us as people. And we must respect our children. It is not respecting of ourselves to hand our power over to our children, and it’s not respectful of them either.
When we plead with our children to behave, when we lose control (ie. let them control our emotions – we’ve handed them our power, remember), we are telling our children that there is no point in having any respect for us, because we have no respect for ourselves.
It is not respecting of ourselves to use our power to force our children to respect us and it’s not productive, anyway. All it does is teach children to hide their bad behaviour, and to decide what’s worth risking doing and what isn’t. When we enforce strict punishments, and make rules ‘because I said so’, we are telling our children that we don’t think we’re worthy enough of respect in ourselves, so they must respect us simply because we are older and bigger than them.
The trouble is, children are far smarter than we think, and they know that that’s not a good reason to respect someone – it’s simply a reason to fear them, and to hide from them anything you feel might anger them.
But when we remain in our power as parents, when we show our children that we love and respect ourselves, when we show ourselves compassion, and then do the same to our children, they feel far more as one with us. They feel safe and secure enough to develop their own sense of self, and to respect themselves and others. When children truly, deeply respect their parents, then there are far fewer altercations.
I know this because I regularly spend time doing all three different things with my power as a parent, and I know the one that brings the most happiness, the most joy and the most kind, compassionate co-operation between us all – staying in my power and respecting and loving myself.
Image credits: MrCharly, tim ellis, noordinator/ Flickr.com