Monday, October 26, 2015

Power struggles from childhood to adulthood and the quest for world peace

When I was a young man, I tried therapy, support groups and many books. I was in a lot of pain and can remember a therapist telling me that his impression of me is "that of a man who wants to jump out of his skin". It was then that I began the journey of self-discovery. I was anxious, resentful and terrified of people.

The first step after therapy was books. I read a lot of books like The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child rearing and the roots of violence and Making Sense of Suffering. I had suffered at the hands of an alcoholic parent as a child and needed to figure out how to undo it as a young adult. I spent much of my adult life working out my identity and learning how be comfortable with myself.

Back then, I just wanted a relationship, but I realize now that what I wanted was so much more. I wanted peace, relief from the obsessions that plagued me. I found it through lots of hard work, writing, self-help groups and, much later, just getting married, for we learn more about ourselves in relations with others than without.

A few days ago, I read a fantastic article about kids, "10 Alternatives To 'Consequences' When Your Child Isn't Cooperating". This article talks about power struggles. Hmmm. "Power Struggles"? I've read about that before. I read about them here not too long ago, at the Lives In the Balance website. But I also read about it many years ago while working with Paul and Layne Cutright. I had enrolled in a 60 hour course in conflict resolution at the request of a roommate. I had time and nothing to lose, so I decided to do it.

I spent a whole week in a seminar in San Diego, California, learning about relationships in sort of a boot camp with compassion. The Cutrights have a great book called "Straight From the Heart", a tool for building intimacy with the people we love. It was, to say the least, an enormously liberating experience.

At the seminar in San Diego, they talked about power struggles in the adult context. I learned that a power struggle is really a request for greater commitment. So in my relations with my wife, when there is a disagreement, I see it as a request for greater commitment. I do not see it as "my way or the highway". When people get to the "my way or the highway" point, that is where the relationship ends. I never let it get to that point for me. I'm just committed and there is nothing more to it.

That article I read a few days ago on dealing with kids when they don't cooperate also talks about power struggles. I had read the phrase "power struggles" in that article and just passed it by, like I already knew what it was about. But a few days ago, I realized that they were talking about the same thing.

Every conflict I ever had with my dad was a power struggle. But here's the thing about power struggles: they are more about "my way or the highway" than about love. My dad was almost always in "my way or the highway" mode (I think he still is). There was no compromise, there were no exceptions. If he didn't get his way, then everyone else learned what the "consequences" were. At that point, it becomes clear that might is right around him.

Most parents in the 60's, 70's and 80s, were very concerned with "consequences". They wanted their children to behave, so there were consequences for unwanted behavior. All of the consequences like spanking, grounding, loss of possessions, privileges and the like, were conjured up by the parents because they had no other tools to work with. There was very little recognition of natural consequences.

That article at Aha! Parenting makes a case in point:
"I'm not suggesting that you move heaven and earth to protect your child from the natural outcome of his choices. We all need to learn lessons, and if your child can do so without too much damage, life is a great teacher. (Meaning, you won't let him get a concussion to teach him to wear his bike helmet.) But you'll want to make sure these are actually "natural" consequences that your child doesn't perceive as punishment so they don't trigger all the negative effects of punishment. What's more, you'll want to be sure that your child is convinced that you aren't orchestrating the consequence and are firmly on his side, so you don't undermine your relationship with him."
Life is a great teacher. When kids learn from natural consequences, they become better able to assess risk and make their own choices. To put it differently, I would rather have my own kids learn to behave on their own without me regulating them. If I create the "consequence" then they look to me for regulation. If they experience the consequences of their actions as a natural outcome, then they begin to observe the world without me getting involved and make better choices. They learn to regulate themselves. I know, interesting concept, but it works.

When I got into power struggles with my dad as a kid, I saw my dad as forcing his will upon me without really understanding what I wanted. Kids are great problem solvers. When faced with a problem that they can't solve, they may cry, act out or withdraw. When they act out, it's unwanted behavior. Parents who were spanked will spank their kids. Parents who were yelled at will yell at their kids. Parents who treated with the opportunity to talk about and solve the problem, will help their kids.

I was grounded, spanked, yelled at, and had to deal with a difficult, hard to predict contrarian that was my dad. This isn't to say my dad was or is evil. Just a bit confused. He could have helped me instead of punishing me. That's the point I want to make.

My mom? She was pretty simple about it. She was generally very compassionate and helped us to solve our problems. She talked with us. The difference is this: dad was uncomfortable with the feelings he experienced during our "unwanted" behavior. Mom wanted to talk it out. She wanted to help.

When those feelings came up for my parents it was like night and day. My dad punished for relief from the feelings of being powerless over the kids. Mom would always talk with us.

The message I got from each parent was different. With my dad, the message was, "Getting you to do things my way is more important than the love I have for you".With mom, the message was, "It's more important to talk about it and solve it together than to punish you for your behavior".

These power struggles are carried within us through adulthood. And as Alice Miller notes in many of her books, many of the most brutal dictators in history carried the same power struggles to positions of enormous power. Once seated in a position of power, the leader with unresolved issues with his parents will impose the fate of his childhood upon the people subject to his power. Miller found this with Hitler, Nicolae CeauČ™escu, and a few others which don't readily come to mind now, because those are the two that I remember the best.

Hitler was savagely beaten by his father every day. He once confided in his sister that he had learned not to cry when spanked and even learned to count the beatings. Nicolae CeauČ™escu was raised by an alcoholic father. His parents were forced to have more children than they wanted, so as an adult leader, he imposed the same fate upon the nation he led.

Humankind faces enormous problems: global warming, overpopulation, ocean acidification and that's just what we know about. At this juncture, we are faced with a choice: we can punish our kids or teach them how to solve problems. We can now look at every dictator to see where the inspiration for their abuse comes from: their parents. We can also be the problem solving inspiration for our children so that they grow up to be problem solvers rather than dictators. We do this by giving our kids the problem solving skills they need to cope with the demands of their environment.

We can either be ruled by problem solvers or by dictators. Nurturing and protecting our children will almost certainly save the human race before any dictator has a chance to rise to power. I can't think of a better way to leave the world for our kids.
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