Parenting, Power, and Control

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by Liz Gandolfo

Last week I was invited to bring my two-year-old to an early childhood development class so that the students could see a toddler in action and ask me questions about his daily routine, developmental milestones, etc.  I was happy to oblige as long as my four-year-old son could accompany us, which was thankfully fine with the professor.  The night before we were supposed to attend the class, my five-and-a-half year old daughter was up for hours with a croupy cough.  She was clearly not well enough to go to school, but she was perky enough in the morning that I decided to bring her to the class along with my two sons.  Things went well for about 20 to 30 minutes or so, during which time all three kids were very shy and surprisingly silent.  But then all hell broke loose.  The two-year-old continued to sit quietly with me, but the older two began to wrestle (complete with sound effects worthy of WWF) right in the middle of the circular seating arrangement that was designed for more intimate access to the visiting guests, not for a circus side-show of pre-school antics.  I did my best to corral the trouble-makers, but to no avail.  They completely defied me and refused to be quiet or still.  In my hurry that morning, I had neglected to pack crayons, a snack, or other activities that might lure them into submission.  So in those painfully long 20 minutes of chaos, I longed for the ability to control my children with one stern look.  A Jedi mind trick would have been helpful to have up my sleeve at that moment.  But alas, a Jedi mother I am not, so I sat meekly staring at my children in horror, mortified at their behavior and my lack of ability to control my own offspring.

This is just one anecdote among many—and a particularly embarrassing one at that.  How often I long for the power to control my children’s behavior—for their own safety, for my own sanity, or for the sake of raising them to be polite and respectful human beings fit for social interaction with others.  I am sure there are parenting techniques that would help me gently persuade my children to heed the commands of their mother and father, and I aspire to one day master those techniques.  In the meantime, my desire for some semblance of authority and control over my children is raising some interesting questions for me as a feminist theologian.

ImageIn feminist theology, power (both divine and human) is often recast in terms of relationality, reciprocity, and mutuality rather than unilateral authority, domination, or might.  For many feminists, this distinction is one of power-with vs. power-over; the power of persuasion vs. the power of coercion; power-in-relation vs. power-in-control.  As a feminist thinking about power structures and social relationships, I am completely on board with this vision.  As a parent of small children, though, I am having a hard time with the imperative need to have at least some semblance of the old-school authoritative control over my children that I have theoretically (and politically) rejected as antithetical to the true nature of power and love.  Sure, the ultimate goal of my relationship with my children is the kind of mutuality and reciprocal exchange of power that these feminist ideals uphold.  But the reality is that I have three children under the age of six, and my desire for control is not entirely unwarranted.  Preventing children from running out into traffic, from spitting in each others’ faces, from stabbing themselves with sharp objects, or from emptying all the bathtub water onto the floor.  These are not unreasonable areas in which to hope for some authority as a parent.  My primary strategy in these situations, and in our relationship as a whole, aims for persuasion and respect for my children’s developing sense self-worth.  But coercion—the dreaded word that I dare not use in a positive light when I write as a feminist theologian—is often a necessity in parenting young children.  The coercion of which I speak is not physically violent or abusive, of course, but it does seek to control a child’s behavior in an authoritative manner.  Even the most permissive of parenting styles must admit to some need for unilaterally controlling certain behaviors in order to preserve the physical safety of children.

The necessity of some degree of coercion in parenting leaves me wondering whether and how power as authority and control might fit into a feminist theology committed to mutuality and respect.  Is there a rightful place for coercion in feminist theological accounts of divine power, human interaction, or ethical action?  Or is parenting young children the sole exception to the unacceptability of power as coercion in feminist theology (if it is an exception at all)?  It is only in writing this blog post that I have even been able to even formulate these question, and I have no answers to offer here.  So your thoughts on these matters are most welcome.  What do you see as the place of power, coercion and control in parenting?  In life? In theology?  In ethics?