Becoming a parent puts us in a power relationship with a vulnerable being, and for most of us that power relationship brings us big questions about how to use power responsibly. This is obviously an important issue in our families as well as our culture!
As people in power, we may use power over other people, thinking we know and understand what people should do and using control, rewards and punishment, even violence to make them do it. The power comes from our position rather than our relationship, so we rely on the tools of the position to enforce it. As parents we may use treats, new toys, electronics, and more subtle things like approval and love as tools.
Sometimes we avoid using power, leaving it with our children, spouses, our own parents, the school, a doctor, or somebody else. We may perceive what our child needs but feel helpless to do it. Think of the parent who knows a school is not a good fit for her child but doesn't make a change because her parents or husband won't approve. Or the parent who senses that their child needs emotional support but follows a teacher or doctor's advice about medicating the child's ADD or anxiety instead of getting family support.
The ideal use of power is a balance of respect for the child's own power and healthy use of our power. Imagine a train and its track. A child is like a train--they have their own innate power but don't yet know how to channel it. Parents are the tracks. It is not our job to be the engine, but it is our job to give it reasonable parameters about where it can go. In this power relationship, parents attune closely to a child, understanding their energy, direction, and development. We also see the bigger patterns in life.
For example, and this is one that made such a positive difference in my life when I started to get it, we can consider sleep. We aren't in charge of when and for how long our children sleep. Just sit with that if you're still in this stage and soak it in--you can not control your child's sleep. That's their own train. What we can do is set up good conditions for sleep and respond to a child's own sleep patterns and cycles. So when kids are young we read their cues about sleepiness and respond to them. We create routines that help them to sleep when they're tired. We teach them to feel what it is to be sleepy. We help them to feel safe going to sleep, reminding them that we're looking forward to seeing them in the morning. We don't turn on the tv to amuse them if they can't go to sleep, instead helping them to know that it's okay to just lay in bed and rest or think or breathe until sleep comes. All of these things are like train tracks.
This analogy works for many things in the parent-child power relationship. If you're trying to be the engine, you're not in your own power. If you're paying attention to the train and giving it 'just right' tracks, you're probably using your own power in balance with their own.
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.