Is "power imbalance" between parents and children an issue?

This op ed piece in my paper the other day seems to suggest that there is a problem with a “power imbalance” between parents and children.

In 1933, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi described this dynamic, warning that any asymmetry, even the simple indication that someone has more power than we do, can potentially be traumatic.

Today’s social justice values respond to this reality, calling on us to censure oppressive and harmful figures and to gain power for those who have been powerless.

I am not denying that toxic parents exist. But the mere belief that a parent ought to have more “power” than their child - that the parent can exercise some degree of unilateral authority and that in some cases “because I said so” is a sufficient explanation - does not equate with toxicity.

IMO this article is suggestive of a trend I perceive in some portions of today’s US society for adult children to “blame” their parents for reasonable and well-intentioned (even if mistaken) parenting choices, as well as many young parents affording their young children excessive agency.

As usual, I expect you to educate me as to why I am mistaken. :wink:

The idea that a mentally undeveloped and totally inexperienced child should have the same right as an adult parent to make decisions is absurd. That’s like saying a newly recruited player out of high school should have the same right to make coaching decisions as Lou Saban. Yet, in an effort to ensure children’s rights, our society has gone overboard and is leaning heavily in that direction.

A family is an organizational unit and, for it to work properly, someone has to be in charge. That “someone” definitely should not be the child.

I believe there should be an inverse relationship between the age of a child and their “power” in the child-parent dynamic.

If she’s suggesting that a 2-year-old should have an equal say in family decisions as the adults, then she’s an idiot.

I’m having difficulty parsing that article. Most sentences in it are just incoherent psychobabble.

Some children will go to school and do their homework by choice. Many won’t. Unless the author is suggesting children be allowed to choose to watch television all day long and never learn anything, then the opinion is self-defeating.

If there is a historial power imbalance that has as much claim (or even more) to being the primordial social inequality than patriarchal sexual dynamics, it’s the one between adults and children. And it doesn’t easily yield itself to simplistic babytalk (so to speak!) depictions of what power imbalance and inequality actually is. I mean, even if you posit that 10 year olds should be consulted on every decision that affects them and to have the same sovereign right to determine their own courses, you can’t extend that to 8 month olds. So we cannot assume that equality is the desired outcome. The situation is more complex than that, and power isn’t what it’s often cast as. At the same time, yes, I was very much the children’s libber all through my childhood; the limitations of childhood self-determination don’t support that absolute situation we have in law (and in tradition). Ten year olds could be included in a lot more, both in the sense of authority and in the corresponding responsibility, and I will testify that we often want to. And coercion needs to be recognized for what it is, not waved away as automatically permitted because it’s “for your own good” and “we know better and you have to obey and a little spanking never hurt me none when I was growing up”. Coercion, like inequality, isn’t something that can be entirely eliminated, but it’s traumatic to the person experiencing it, it does foster resentment, and it’s worthy of being analyzed for how it affects all relationships moving forward.

It’s a poorly written article and that business from the psychoanalyst is just confusing things * - but she isn’t talking about 2 year olds. What she’s talking about is adult offspring estranging themselves from parents who were not actually toxic or abusive - and how that estrangement is damaging even to those cutting their parents out of their lives. What the author is trying to identify as a problem is the idea that a parent exerting unilateral authority and not being “perfect” is a sufficient basis for the adult child to cut that parent out of their life rather than perhaps setting boundaries - but she doesn’t seem to have done a good job of it.

* I think what what the author is trying to say is that the psychoanalyst described a dynamic within a family , where the parents do have “power” over the children and he warned that the fact that one person has power over the over the other may be experienced by the powerless person as traumatic even if , in fact , the “powerful” one never used that power inappropriately.

Why on earth is every single sentence in that op-ed its own paragraph? It was choppy as hell and very tough to read.

That’s reasonable. The line that stands out to me most in the op-ed says, “what I see in my practice are cases of family conflict mismanaged, power dynamics inverted rather than negotiated.” That seems much more reasonable than the idea that any power imbalance is problematic. Certainly power dynamics have to be shifted and negotiated as children grow.

But I’ve never heard of Sandor Ferenczi and don’t even know whether the author is accurately portraying his ideas, or using them in the right context.

Interesting. But what of the corollary? If social justice types are supposed to be “calling on us to censure” against such an imbalance, can you perhaps think of any examples of anti-social justice types taking advantage of the power imbalance between children and parents to their own ends? Any political campaigns or movements recently, for instance, that have made much of just how important it is that the views of parents be reenforced onto their (and others’) children through government action, such as in the classroom?

Or is this just a problem with “social justice values” and the people who hold them?

Exactly. The ideal would be that when your kid goes out into the world on their own, they’re essentially equal with you and autonomous. The parental role switches to more of an consultant/advisor role at that point.

But until then, there’s a degree of parental control to be exerted in the name of healthy/proper behavior. I mean, a 7 year old may want to stay up watching cartoons and eating candy until 12 midnight, but that’s not a good idea- they’re not necessarily fully equipped to understand that sort of thing. So as a parent, you have to exert a certain amount of power/control over them to make them go to bed and not just eat candy. And this varies by age and/or their capability to make decisions.

I think the real issue here is probably in the teen years and after, when parents exert too much control over their children- I can imagine that children of helicopter parents would be pretty damned resentful of their parents once they get out into the real world and are forced to grow up and make decisions for themselves. And some parents exert way more control than they probably need to- I knew people whose parents exerted control over their children’s spending, even when their children had worked for that money at real jobs outside the home. I’ve always thought that was f**ked up. And if your parents are like that, I could see it being perceived as toxic after the fact, even if the parents were coming from a loving perspective (at least from their own perspective).

I mean, it’s a spectrum. It would be absurd to say that a 5-year old gets to say he doesn’t want his vaccination shots when his parents do in fact totally know better than him. But at the same time there are indeed tyrannical parents who are great harm to their kids.

One of my (vaccinated) coworker’s told me his (vaccinated) wife was hesitant to have their young (5-6ish?) son vaccinated, but that the son wanted to get the shot so they were probably going to let him.

Right conclusion, really bad reasoning to get there.

If only that were the problem. Parents eager to get their children vaccinated.

Again, I’m curious to know if @Dinsdale has considered, or identified himself, any situation in which these “social justice values” decrying a power imbalance between children and parents might actually have a point, as evidenced by what people who are not so in to “social justice values” are doing these days.

I disagree. A child’s opinion or desire isn’t automatically invalid just because they’re a child. 5 is at the very bottom end of the age range for a child’s vaccination, so I understand the hesitancy. The parents seem to recognize that the kid wants something that will be good for him, and they’re letting that inform their own decision.

If a parent offers to let their kid have ice cream for dinner and the kid says, “no, that’s unhealthy, I’d rather have a nice salad,” it’s not bad reasoning for the parents to acquiesce. The bad reasoning happened when the ice cream was scooped.

Sometimes a kid is right and a parent is wrong. I think a huge part of toxic parenting is when the adults refuse to acknowledge that fact, no doubt because they fear losing authority.

No, of course not. But if they wanted him to get vaccinated, and he didn’t want to, should they allow him to skip it?

If they recognize it’s good for him, it shouldn’t have been a choice. If they think the risks outweigh the benefits, they shouldn’t let him do it.

I mean, I guess if you’re pretty ambivalent about whether the risk/benefit calculation…sure, let the kid decide.

I once heard a father say that he would occasionally reject perfectly reasonable requests by his kids “just because” - that a parent needed to assert authority every now and then just to remind them who’s boss, even if the request were perfectly legit and harmless. To me that was terrible logic.

I agree with this. IMHO there is no magic date where a child becomes an adult and has all the agency thereof. Its a gradual process that starts somewhere in their early teens and ends somewhere around the late teens/early twenties. It’s like and elastic that stretches a little at first, then a bit more, gradually, over time - until that child fledges from the nest. A parent never becomes “not-a-parent” to their children, but their role and influence gradually lessens during those teen years, whereas prior the parents are essentially Gods. Parents of teens just need to provide guardrails. Some parents see themselves as Gods over their kids forever.

We know parents who surveil their kids’ smart phones - every text and call the kids get, the parents see as well. So damaging, IMHO, to building trust for when those kids become adults and equals.

I agree. I try to explain my reasoning for decisions to my children even when they are too young to follow the logic. I want them to know I’m not just being arbitrary. I will occasionally fall back on “because I said so” or “reasons” when they’re just being argumentative and I’m out of patience, but I try to make that be the exception.

I read the linked article a few times and I didn’t see anything that suggested that parents should be giving young children more “power” in the parent/child relationship, or even that the young people she talks about feel that their relationship with their parents was damaged as a result of not being given enough power as children.

Here’s how I read it

Sometimes adults have to cut their parents out of their lives for the sake of their mental health, such in cases of serious childhood physical abuse of sexual abuse. This is the right course for some people. It isn’t the right course for most people.

Unfortunately, there is a misconception among many young people that the act of cutting your parents out of your life is an empowering one, regardless of the situation. But it isn’t, it’s difficult and hard and very disempowering. It can lead to feelings of rejection and abandonment even though the adult child is the one doing the rejecting and abandoning.

Even though a well-meaning parent that wasn’t perfect may have done things that caused psychological damage to their child, in most cases estrangement shouldn’t be the first line solution, because estrangement is inherently damaging. Other forms of conflict resolution should be tried first.

That’s how I read the article, but if you want to have a lively conversation about OMG SJW’s think young children should get to make all their own educational and dietary decisions in order to power balance the parent/child relationship, liberals bad…….go for it.

But that’s not what article says, IMHO.

As you described it (or as I’m understanding it), the parents are using the kid’s desires as a single data point about a decision they’ve been unsure about.

I agree that it would be weird if staunchly anti-vax parents let a five year old get vaccinated only because the kid wanted it, or vice versa.

That sounds like stuff from that one abusive parenting guru that gets called out in the Pit. It presents parenting as needing to dominate the child in an authoritarian-type relationship. That sort of thing makes it where the child never learns to make their own decisions. Either they wind up going wild when they have no authority figure, or they just blindly adopt the views of their parents. Neither is good.

The whole idea of parenting is that you’re raising a child to become an adult. At first they can’t make any decisions. They get better and better at it, until the point where, as an adult, they can make all their own decisions. (Or, at least, all the ones society allows adults.)

There is definitely something to be watched about this power imbalance between parents in children. But it’s definitely not as simple as “both sides should have equal power.” It’s more about making sure that the parent isn’t taking advantage of their power, and thus abusing their child—whether physically or emotionally.