Information, Power, and Control Over Children
In several on-line and in-person discussions of my book, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the relationship between sharing information with children and power/control. At different points in my parenting journey, I have often justified the sharing of information with the children in my life with the idea that they can easily choose to disregard the information I give them or choose to act in accordance with that information. This might be information I give about hygiene, nutrition, or sleep.
If I am truly honest in my motives for sharing information, it is often because I want to influence their choices and behavior. As I have challenged myself to reflect on my own behavior and use of power as an adult and parent, I have gotten clearer about my intentions and I have been able to sometimes offer information in ways that I believed were non-coercive. I believed it was non-coercive because I did not have an attachment to a particular outcome.
I also often hear parents talk about the need to share information as a responsibility of parents and I have felt that many times as well, and at times continue to feel that way. What I have come to see is that even when I have a neutral stance on the information, I still possess greater power and control in the relationship between myself and the children who share my life. Through some of the research I read in writing my book, and in reflecting on my own socialization as a child and adult, I have been challenged to realize that the power dynamics between us are always there, even when I believe they are not. The very nature of my adult privilege and power often obscures my view of whether or not I am using my power to dominate and manipulate.
If I come across an article about the newest findings on what causes cavities, for example, I may believe that I am offering that information to children in a neutral fashion. After all, we have an open, honest relationship and they have challenged me many times when they’ve felt my behavior was controlling and dominating. I would treat them like I might treat Rob and merely share it without the expectation that it would change his behavior or thinking.
The reality is that Rob and I have equal power in our relationship as adults. Our institutions and systems, for the most part, convey equal status to us and we are seen as being able to legitimately exercise our ability to choose one course of action over another. If Rob chooses to ignore or challenge the information, there is little chance that I will withdraw my love, acceptance and approval of him. And even if I do, though it may be hurtful, it will not affect him the way it would affect a child who depends on me to provide food, shelter, and protection.
In our current institutions and social structures, we have power and privilege conferred upon us as adults in the parent-child relationship. This power is given to us without our consent, but merely because we have reached a certain age that is deemed to be legitimate and superior to those who are older or younger. This is the fundamental nature of adultism or ageism.
Even when we reject the dominant norms of a culture that confers privilege and power on adults over children, that power still exists and it is in play in our relationships whether we want it to be or not. It is how we use that power that we need to challenge. Sharing information may not be neutral given the nature of adultism in our society. In this case, information is power and information can also be controlling even when our intent as parents is to be neutral.