The Power Dynamics of Dad

Treading that fine balance between authoritative coercion and empowerment of our children is a challenge for most parents. On the one hand there is the deployment of coercive power (“Do it because I said so!”) and the reward power (“There is ice cream for you if you do so!”), but at some level both options are fundamentally disempowering the children, as well as encouraging undesirable future behaviour (possibly encouraging lying to the parent: “Yes, of course I did it,” and demanding the reward as payment “I’ll do it if you give me an ice cream” respectively). While I have been often tempted to resort to coercive or reward techniques simply out of convenience and comfort, I have at some level felt a sense of failure as a parent when I did so. After much trial and error, I did develop a system with my daughters to get them through chores they were unwilling to do, which I call the “good and better” system.

To illustrate by way of example, our daughters have to brush their teeth and get into bed at a certain time. The going-to-bed rituals also involve ONE of the following:  reading a bedtime story, playing “I spy,” making a jigsaw puzzle, picking out clothes for school the next day etc. Sometimes when they are unwilling to brush teeth and go to bed, I offer them the “good” or “better” option, where I get to frame the “better” option and they can frame the “good” option. So, my option would go along the lines of “A better idea is to brush teeth, and do X (where X is one of the ritual activities) because … (and give a reason why it is particularly fun to do X today instead of any of the other ritual activities).” They can each choose a “good” option which is along the lines of “A good idea is to brush teeth and do Y because….” Thus we agree on if they want to do a “good” or “better” activity, both of which are deliberately worded in positive rather than negative language. In either case the desired outcome for me (them brushing teeth & getting to bed) has to be a part of the options. If they skip out on the “brushing teeth” then it cannot qualify as a “good” option. Having run through this system for a number of tasks my daughters now use it with each other as well when they have to negotiate options as they play. They also occasionally use the system with me to negotiate in special cases a desirable result for them which I may not be inclined to accede to under normal circumstances e.g.  buying an ice cream for them after we come back from the park.

I prefer this system to the coercive/ rewards approach because it not only empowers them to make decisions, but also makes them engage in an analytic process and provide sound reasoning for why they choose either option X, or Y. While my wife and I can use reward & coercive power in addition to legitimate power, to get them to perform certain actions, we run the risk of reducing their sense of power in the relationship. If, in the interests of convenience (or frustration) we engage in coercive procedures, we run the risk of causing them to feel a sense of “increased threat, punishment, and social constraint, and [which] thereby activates inhibition-related negative affect, vigilant, systematic cognition, and situationally constrained behaviour” (Keltner, 265). To a certain extent one can argue that both the “good” and “better” options are manipulated by myself and thus reinforce the power dynamic under a different guise, but I would argue that the children perceive themselves to be in a position of power: first, to frame a “good” option and then, second, to exercise the right to choose between a “good” and “better” option. Furthermore, the children are encouraged into systematic cognition when they are framing their reasons for their option Y, as well as when evaluating the merits of my option X, before making their final decision. Such systematic cognition is not such a bad thing (especially when compared with automatic cognition that arises out of elevated power positions, despite the supposedly “heuristic” convenience implied there).

Conversely, a rewards-based approach effectively places them in a position of elevated power, involving as the name implies, a “reward-rich environment,” which “triggers approach-related positive affect, attention to rewards, automatic cognition and disinhibited behaviour” (Ibid). Again, my “good and better” approach does give the children a sense of power which then translates into positive emotions, but which are constrained enough to discourage a sole focus on rewards, lazy cognition and disinhibited behaviour, none of which are desirable behaviours. It is important to underscore that neither option X or Y are “rewards” but simply one of the regular options that would take place under normal circumstances. Thus, by giving the children a sense of controlled empowerment, I am able to give them a feeling of the positive emotions associated with elevated power, without excessive latitude to encourage in them the negative reactions associated with such elevated power. On the other side of the coin, I am able to encourage them in the one positive attribute of reduced power (i.e. systematic cognition) without having them fall prey to the many negative consequences of reducing their power.[1]

None of my actions came from prior analysis or reflection on the scholarly research done or literature written on the subject. However, after reading Ch 10 from Pfeffer on framing, I began to see how the framing of the options for my children did have a significant effect on the desired result. I wanted this journal entry to be focused on framing until I read the Keltner article[2] which made me re-evaluate the power dynamics inherent in such framing, as well as the consequences for both myself and my children (both in the short and long term). I am not using Keltner as a scholarly endorsement for a claim to have invented the best parenting tool since (if you pardon the colloquialism) sliced bread, this being after all a mere slice and not the whole loaf. However, this reflection has made me more aware of the consequences of both elevated power and reduced power. In this particular case, it has helped me become more aware of the delicate balance between empowering someone (my children) without disempowering another (myself), being well aware that it is in the balance between them that one can reap the benefits of both. At the end of the day, one may finally argue that I never really relinquished power over my children so to speak, and that one way or another they still had to brush their teeth and go to bed, without having any real democratic choice in the matter. To this claim, I turn to the words of the incomparable Kelpner, “Dominance is behaviour that has the acquisition of power as its end, yet power can be attained without performing acts of dominance” (my emphasis, 266). My wife and I may for a short while have coercive/reward power over our daughters, but the less we use (or abuse) it, the better relationship we will have with them over our lives, and the sweeter the satisfaction I will have of hearing them say that “Daddy is cool” over the years even as they, at the ripe old ages of six and four, dexterously manipulate me with the tools of my own devising.


Keltner, Dacher et. al. “Power, Approach and Inhibition.” Psychological Review 2003. V.110.2, p. 265-284.

Kipnis, David. “Does Power Corrupt?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1972. V.24.1, p. 33-41.

Pfeffer, Jeffery. Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations. Boston: HBS Press, 1992.

[1] In my understanding of the reading, I feel that systematic cognition is a preferable option to automatic cognition given the dangers of stereotyping, and specious heuristics that occur in the latter, and which are well underscored by its other name, “lazy cognition.”

[2] Kipnis article while important in its pioneering work was much better contained and refined in Keltner.


2 thoughts on “The Power Dynamics of Dad

  1. Good post Tony. I think this approach would also work with some people I work with, they sometimes act like 4 year olds 🙂

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