Our parental power is not something that comes up in casual conversation when we’re complaining about how out of control our children have become. In contrast, many parents talk about how powerless they feel. But regardless of what we feel, we parents have tremendous power.
Parental power is another way of thinking about the influence we have over our children. Our children – especially our toddlers and early school-age children – see us as the model for being a man or woman, for being human. What we think, what we say, how we treat them defines how they think of themselves, how they view other people, and the health of their relationships. They strive for our attention, our acknowledgement, our love. We have an enormous impact on their lives, which for many of us can be rather frightening. Mostly we think of it negatively – what if we screw up? But our parental power can also be used for good, for helping our children get through challenging times.
The power I have as a parent became very clear recently in dealing with my three year-old son who has had enormous difficulty falling asleep (without screaming, crying and banging on the door) and sleeping through the night. My wife and I have tried literally hundreds of things to help our children, especially Elijah, sleep through the night. I joke that we are currently working on Plan R because Plans A through Q didn’t work out so well – and that’s only from when we started counting. The only one that had any real lasting effect on my children was the concept of happy thoughts. However, in the past couple of weeks something else has had a powerful impact on whether my children sleep through the night. It is my leaving them a note.
I have the pleasure (and sometimes the frustration) of putting my children to bed every night. I have often believed that one of the reasons my son has had such a difficult time with going to sleep is separation anxiety. He doesn’t get to see me much during the day because I have to work and then I put him to bed at night, leaving him in the dark. Even worse, when he would have trouble sleeping, he would often wake up early to find me still at home, but when he slept well, I was already on the train, gone. I never would get a chance to tell him how great he did when he slept well.
One morning, after Elijah had a very good night going to sleep and didn’t wake up upset during the night, I had the idea of leaving a note. I found some construction paper and some fabric markers and wrote him a note – including a stick figure (I am a terrible drawer – I can’t even call myself an artist). Later that day, my wife told me he loved it – especially the terrible stick figure drawing (want to see a recent note?). The incentive of the note encouraged Elijah to go to sleep and sleep through the whole night without any problems for 10 straight nights and challenged me to keep coming up with new ways to say he slept through the night and new drawings for him to look at. Nothing else I have ever tried has worked that well (including bribery efforts). Even more interesting, the nights where I have forgotten to remind him about the note, he has had trouble sleeping, getting upset and banging on the door. But when I remembered to remind him about the possibility of a note if he fell asleep and slept well, he gave us not even a single peep. One morning he even woke up with a jolt saying, “I want my note. I get a note!” How incredible that something I write with fabric marker on construction paper with stick figures could hold such influence, such power for my child. It is terrifying and mind-boggling all at the same time. I think many of us forget how much power we have because it is difficult for us to comprehend. I think underestimating our power leads us to not giving our children enough positive reinforcement. I know this experience with leaving notes has made me rethink a lot of what I do and say to my children. Maybe I don’t need to reward them as much with material things as much as showing my love, my pride in what they have done and who they are. They mean the world to me and I think the world of them. They shouldn’t have to guess that – they should always know and feel it.
Now they have one more thing every morning they can look at that reminds them of how I feel – even when I am not around.
Jeremy Schneider is a fatherhood expert, syndicated columnist, and therapist specializing in parenting, relationships, and helping people overcome depression. Learn more about Jeremy at jgs.net.