How Power Distorts Our Parenting Practices: Using Critical Reflection

When I became a parent, I saw an opportunity to instill in our first child the values of fairness, justice, and respect for differences. These were values that were consistent with the work I did in social justice education.

As an advocate, I wanted to change the world.

As a mom, I saw children as another way to have these values change the world in the future through their beliefs and actions.

I also engaged as a mom in a lot of reflection on what I call the “mechanics” of parenting. I chose to embrace natural childbirth, the value of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and responding quickly to a baby’s cries.

Incorporating these practices into my parenting was in some ways easy. They were not always physically easy, but philosophically they fit into my beliefs about the world, children, and the role of parents.

They did not fundamentally challenge my frame of reference about the adult/child relationship.

It wasn’t until the first child in my life started to get older that I began to critically reflect on the assumptions I held about parenting.

Even though my goal was to raise children who valued fairness and justice, children who would embody respect and love, I never critically reflected on how my parenting assumptions and practices would help achieve or would get in the way of this goal.

I never considered how my view of children might be harmful to the change I wanted to see in the world because I had yet to engage in critical reflection about my parenting practices.

What is critical reflection?

“Reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. The first is to understand how considerations of power undergird, frame and distort so many [parenting] processes and interactions.

The second is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our [parenting] lives easier but that actually end up working against our own best long term interests – in other words, those that are hegemonic.” Stephen Brookfield, 1995

Brookfield wrote this in the context of teaching. I inserted “parenting” because I believe that many of our parenting assumptions are based on the roles parents take on as teachers and caregivers. His statements apply to parenting as much as education.

In fact, our unwillingness to challenge the underlying assumptions of our parenting practices allows those practices to continue into the next generations. We accept as normal and natural those things that are the result of our assumptions rather than be willing to see how parenting produces those results.

The assumptions and interactions in our educational systems mirror the broader society in the same way that our parenting practices also mirror the values of our broader society.

Power in parenting

If I had read Brookfield’s statement when I first became a parent, I would have rejected the idea that power “undergirds, frames, and distorts” so many parenting processes and practices.

In my professional life, I could easily see how this happened in education.

But, power did not seem to come into the picture at all in parenting, at least not initially. I would not have been able to see how my parenting, which was rooted in love and connection, could be distorted by power.

At first, even though I had power, the needs of the baby seemed so clear that meeting her needs was not challenging to my beliefs about my role as a parent.

However, when she began to walk and talk, what I thought she needed was often in opposition to what she thought she needed. The tools that I had used when she was a baby were no longer working.

My caregiving had moved into control and we were in conflict.

I began to use my power as an adult over her.

I felt justified in using control. I saw control over children all around me. Besides, I told myself, I only do it when absolutely necessary.

As she grew older, what was “necessary” control seemed to happen more and more often.

I had accepted, without question, the belief that children are adults-in-training who need a long period of socialization controlled by adults in order to successfully enter the real world.

In fact, power did undergird, frame, and distort my parenting practices.

It was this child’s natural human desire for autonomy and control over his life that pushed me to critically reflect on my parenting.

Because she began to refuse to accept the ways that I controlled and used power over her I was forced to look more deeply at what I had thought I knew about parenting and children.

I began to see how our broader society’s conceptions of power impacted my parenting behavior. I also began to see how my parenting practices did not reflect my values and countered my long-term goal of creating broader change in the world.

What are our long-term interests in parenting?

Brookfield, in his second point about critical reflection, states that we have to question the assumptions and practices that seem to make our life easier, but in effect, work against us in the long run.

I thought my life as a parent was easier when I set boundaries for children because I believed that they could not learn to self-regulate without external control from an adult.

I thought my life was easier when I restricted access to any sugary foods because I believed children would not voluntarily limit themselves and become hyper and uncontrollable.

I thought my life was easier when I restricted commercial media because I wouldn’t have to explain why I wouldn’t buy a particular toy or have to explain why I thought something was offensive.

As a parent, my long-term interests (my hopes) are that children are grounded and connected to what they are passionate about. I want them to be able to create lives that are happy and fulfilling, full of love and respect.

I want to change the world so that all people feel valued, are treated with compassion, find their passions, and live lives that are fulfilling based on their internal values.

I want to see justice, fairness, and compassion operate in our society everyday.

What I failed to see was that my parenting practices worked against these long-term interests, these deeply held hopes I had for the world.

I didn’t see this for the first five years of my parenting life.

I began to understand that it was how I viewed and treated the children in my life on a daily basis that mattered.

What I told them about fairness, respect, compassion, and justice didn’t matter if I did not treat them with fairness, respect, and justice.

If I used power and control over them, even with the best intentions, I was teaching them that they should do the same to others.

It was when I began to critically reflect on my parenting assumptions and practices that I could see how my hopes would never be realized.

As long as I held onto the assumptions and practices embedded in our culture around how we treat children, the change I hoped to see in the world could not happen.

I was actively working against my own long-term interests.

More importantly, I was actively working against the long-term interests of the children in my life.

What they needed was control over their own lives. If they were to learn to make decisions based on their internal values, they had to have room to develop the ability to make decisions and to know who they were, what they valued.

I might want them to be critical thinkers, to question assumptions, but if I never allowed them to exercise those abilities, how could they develop them?

I assumed that because my intentions were good I would have good outcomes.

I wanted them to be just, fair, compassionate, and respectful. And I used methods that were the antithesis of these values.

Mainstream parenting is characterized by the assumptions that children cannot move into the world without being properly trained by adults using some form of control. And this control produces exactly the opposite of what we need in the world.

Critical reflection as a tool gives us the opportunity to examine and let go of the assumptions and practices that get in the way, that harm our relationships children, and perpetuate injustice.

If we want to create a world where people are valued and treated with respect, critical reflection gives us the opportunity to develop new practices as parents.

Practices that are grounded in trust and respect so that children carry that trust and respect out into the world.