The language of parental power plays

Mary Schultz

From the archives: Posted on 30th March, 1996

Steven G. wrote:

“. . .there is always a danger in surface appearances and unconventional usages. Will a child question something a parent has labeled a ‘rule’ as often or as willingly or as thoroughly as they might question something a parent describes as ‘generally a good idea’ or a ‘rule of thumb’?”

Exactly. The reason I object to justifying rules by saying, “Oh, my children know that they can always discuss rules with me and get a fair hearing,” is for exactly the reason Steven describes.

Also, this idea of a “fair hearing” necessarily puts the parent in the role of judge, i.e., the one with the full force of law and the ultimate power to decide the issue in hir hands. Saying “rules are meant to be broken” as a means of claiming that this power is somehow benign is completely reprehensible if you are the one who gets to decide when and if a rule will be broken. “Rule” has a certain meaning. If you use that word, you are using that meaning.

Language is important. As a young parent, I was trained to say “There is no yelling at the table” as a euphemism for “I have made the rule that there is no yelling at the table and I am going to enforce it.” This euphemistic construction is ubiquitous: “Food is not for throwing” (“I have made the rule that you may not throw food, and I am going to enforce it.”); “Hitting is not appropriate,” (“I have made the rule that you may not hit, and I am going to enforce it.”).

Parents accepted the training in the use of this euphemistic construction for one reason: it allowed them avoid facing their despotic behaviors. In fact, learning to talk in this way allows you to escape (albeit in bad faith) the two “bad parent” labels: Permissive Parent and Authoritarian Parent.

If you say “Hitting is not appropriate,” you don’t see yourself as permissive because you are “helping your child to see” a “natural” law. (This grammatical construction leaves out who says hitting is not appropriate, leaving authority to god or nature.)

At the same time, you get to avoid seeing yourself as authoritarian, because you take no responsibility for authoring the “law” – it just “is.”

I, personally, have come to prefer the parent who yells “Don’t yell at the table, or else!,” over the parent who says in a syrupy-sweet voice, “There is no yelling at the table.” At least with the first type of parent the kid has a chance to analyze and understand, and therefore respond rationally to, what’s actually happening, i.e., a parental power play.

Of course, what I ultimately prefer in parents, children – people – is honest and precise language which reflects a respect for everyone: “I think yelling at the table is a bad idea”; “I don’t like it when you to yell at the table because it hurts my stomach”; “I would like us all to agree to not yell at the table”; “I’m going to eat in the kitchen because you are yelling.”

See also:

Mary Schultz, 1996, ‘The language of parental power plays’,