This is a paper of mine that was previously published by the Working Papers of the Warwick Suminer Group (Volume 4: Summer 2008) at the Institute of Education, Warwick University.
Parental Power: A theoretical Discussion
Parental power within family and childhood research has a distinct ubiquitous quality, as it is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Parental power over children is constantly assumed and taken for granted but to date there has been little systematic theoretical and/or empirical sociological analysis of this enduring element of parent-child relations. It is therefore the intention of this working paper to explore parental power conceptually, as a way to further our understanding of the parent-child disciplinary dynamic. This will be achieved by drawing on the work of key theorists within the field of power and assessing the usefulness and applicability of these ideas to the power relations between parents and their children.
Within social scientific enquiry theorising of power tends to be the provenance of those concerned with issues of gender inequality, elitism and politics (Bachrach, 1967, Connell, 1987, Nash, 2000) Therefore, it is most often used as a conceptual tool in the analyses of the classic trio of class, gender and ethnicity. Power, however, is implicit in all social relations and is especially pronounced amongst those that are divided along the axes of age. Family and childhood research is criminally scant of rigorous analysis of this most enduring and enigmatic of social scientific concepts. Power, although frequently vaunted as a core feature of parent-child interactions is paradoxically at once everywhere and nowhere within current research. It is consistently referred to within research as if it is axiomatic, as it is continually alluded to and assumed without its qualities, dimensions and character being either defined or investigated. This situation not only leaves gaps in our knowledge concerning what is thought to be a defining attribute of the parent-child relationship but also sadly questions the precise nature of much social research within this field. The work presented here is an attempt to readdress this balance and provide a considered and analytical appraisal of power within the parent-child dyad.
Theories of power:
This working paper will draw on the work of theorists of power hereto unconnected with the field of childhood and family research and will seek to assess the utility and applicability of these ideas to the parent-child disciplinary dynamic. Discussions of power within political thought tend to fall into two major traditions, which can largely be categorised as modernist and post-modernist. The intellectual antecedence of these traditions lies with Hobbes (1955) in the modernist camp and Machiavelli (1999) within the post-modernist tradition. These two schools of thought differ in their approach to theorising about power. The modernist position can be described as a paternalistic top-down theory, as it is concerned with defining the ‘essence’ of power and thereby it essentially seeks to theorise what power is. Whereas the Machiavellian approach can be regarded as more akin to a bottom-up theory, as it is concerned with the effects of power or what it does (Clegg, 1989). The thinkers that are under scrutiny within the modernist/Hobessian approach are Dahl ( 1969), Bachrach and Baratz ( 1969), and Lukes (2005) while Foucault (1977) represents the post-modernist/Machiavellian tradition. These theorists will be appraised to assess the theoretical relevance of their analysis of power and how it might enlighten our understanding of the parent-child disciplinary dynamic.
The Modernist Tradition:
Within the Hobessian tradition power possesses a distinct external reality, which is encapsulated within rulers, leaders and those in positions of authority. Power, is conceptualised as a totalitarian entitlement that is wielded to subordinate and subjugate the inferior and unruly. Although Hobbes’ (1955) theorising is concerned with the nature of state power, the essential elements of his ideas can be transmuted to the parent-child relationship. After all, are not families frequently conceptualised as microcosms of the state and parents depicted as sovereigns over their children? Hobbesian thinking legitimates the myth of supreme power and thereby represents the dominant view, which seeks to justify and naturalise the unequal power distribution between parents and their children.
In Hobbes’ estimations, power is monolithic and purely consists of a one-way transfer from those who have power to those who experience its force. Dahl’s formulaic expression perhaps perfectly encapsulates this view, as he contends that, ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’ (Dahl,  1969, 80). In Dahl’s theorising we can clearly see the genesis of Hobbes’ ideas, as here it is demonstrated that one possesses and wields power (A) whilst another (B) is subject to its influence to the extent that it modifies their behaviour. On a speculative basis we can appreciate how this definition of power can be translated to the parent-child dynamic. Parents, as the beholders of the master status of adulthood are believed to possess rights and duties over their offspring, one such right is the normative use of power. We can all draw upon personal experience – either as a parent or as a child – of incidents where parents exert corporeal expressions of power over their children. Parents can and do regulate their children’s behaviour by utilising various means, be it by ‘the look’, word, or deed. Children, however, within this line of thinking are conceptualised as merely the recipients of power and provide either no resistance or agentic force to bear upon its application.
Power, therefore, comes to be the epitomization of its embodied manifestations, thus rendering it an empirical phenomenon. If we adopt Dahl’s proposition then power only exists and can be known in and through its visible application. If this is the case, then we can only ever accept or know power on face value, as individuals’ intentions and motivations are not perceptible in any empirical sense. Dahl’s reliance on the age-old scientific equation of cause and effect denies us access to ways of knowing the complexity and nuance involved in power relations. Power in this model can only ever be one-dimensional and when applied to the familial context represents parents as merely the points of power but allows us no deeper understanding of the intricacy of its constitutes.
Power therefore, as the individual experiences it, is not merely rooted in episodic interactions. On the contrary, it is suffused and omnipresent within all fields and types of social relations. Bachrach and Baratz ( 1969) identified this in their own work and developed upon the ideas set forth by Dahl, however, they take us beyond empirical understandings of power and have allowed a space for its more metaphysical elements. According to Bachrach and Baratz, power exists outside of its physical manifestations and is inextricably linked to the control of information. In other words, those who possess power are the very people who set the decision-making agenda. Power in this sense concerns a form of censorship, discretion or manipulation of those who are not privy to the full scope of the information available. This understanding enlightens us to the insipid character and form that power can assume; as decisions taken can have wide reaching ramifications for the individual[s] concerned, however, they would not necessarily possess any awareness of this.
It does not require a great leap of the imagination to apply this theorising to the parent-child relationship, as agenda setting is almost certainly a key dimension of parental power. Part of the parental role is to protect, curb, and censor children’s access to the knowledge, experiences and activities of the adult world. This will presumably mean that parents either manipulate or withhold information from their children under the pretext that it is ‘for their own good’. By accepting Bachrach and Baratz account of power is to acquiesce that one (A) derives their power (over B) through the mere fact of another’s (B’s) ignorance or delimited capacity to realise the full scope of the information available. Power of this nature is constructed upon precarious grounds and as such is unstable and temporal as well as being continually under threat. We are all too well aware that parental power suffers this very fate due to its transitory nature, as children’s experiences and knowledge increases outside the realm of the parental home this can lead to the compromise and potential decimation of parental authority.
Power, in accordance with this theorising inherently involves a conflict of interests or values. Therefore, if A is to retain or gain power over B their interests/values need to be maintained, this, as stated by Bachrach and Baratz is accomplished by recourse to a threat of sanctions. In order for this to be effective B has to understand the expectation placed upon them as well as consider the sanction as a deprivation and possess a desire to avoid the sanction that outweighs their investment in the aforementioned interests or values (Bachrach and Baratz,  1969). This dimension of power is a frequent and consistent element of the parent-child disciplinary dynamic, parents perceive part of their role as the vanguards and architects of their children’s moral character (Grusec and Goodnow, 1994). Children, for their part persistently attempt to negotiate, redefine and/or transgress the moral codes set forth by their parents. In turn parents defend what they believe to be their inalienable right – let alone duty – to modify behaviour and when necessary to impose sanctions to regain their child’s compliance. This illustration demonstrates the synthesis of the ideas of power – as proposed by Dahl, Bachrach and Baratz – being both an empirical and metaphysical phenomenon.
The thesis set forward by Bachrach and Baratz laid the foundations for Lukes (2005) and his ‘radical’ yet still firmly modernist view of power. Power could no longer be simply theorised as the manifestation of observable behaviour, instead, it was to be associated with ideation, and it is at this point where Lukes adds his own dimension to the discussion of power. Lukes essentially embraces the ideas established by Dahl, Bachrach and Baratz and incorporates them into his own theorising in what he calls a three dimensional view of power (Lukes, 2005). For Lukes, power as it is observed, follows Dahl’s formulaic expression and as it is wielded adheres to the principles of Bachrach and Baratz. His own particular theorising is in the vein of the analysis of Bachrach and Baratz, as it is rooted in the unobservable expressions of power. According to Lukes, power is at its most effective when it is least detectable, he queries,
Is it not the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial? (Lukes, 2005,28).
Lukes’ thinking is a significant turning point for theorising of power as it introduces the concept of ideology into the discussion. According to Lukes, a significant factor when considering power is how it manifests and maintains itself ideologically, thus sustaining false consciousness and thereby denying agents the capacity to know or recognise their ‘real interests’. We can see how this can be readily applied to the parent-child dynamic, as both parenthood and childhood are deeply entrenched with ideological notions and expectations (Drakich, 1989, James and Prout, 1997, Wearing, 1984). In relation to power, parents are expected to wield it, whereas children are compelled to yield to it. Parents’ are therefore ideologically beleaguered into exerting disciplinary power as an expression of their morality and competence at parenting (Finch, 1989). False consciousness, as an imperative element of ideology thus promotes and sustains the asymmetrical power relationship that parents and their children share.
This disparity within the parent-child relationship renders children almost completely reliant on their parents – particularly in the early years – for their knowledge and experiences of the world. Therefore, in keeping with Lukes’ standpoint the very process of socialisation in itself can be regarded as an insidious form of power which moulds the ‘perceptions, cognitions and preferences’ of children to the extent that they believe their position in the family and the wider world is ‘natural and unchangeable’ or even ‘divinely ordained’ (Lukes, 2005,28). Following this reasoning, parents as the guardians of this insidious power ought to be deemed as at the forefront of repression.
Conversely, parents themselves may be serving the prevailing social orders interests and not necessarily their own ‘real interests’, which leaves us in a quandary, because if supreme power shapes our perceptions, cognitions, wants and desires how is it ever possible to 1) recognise this and 2) know what our ‘real interests’ are? Under Lukes’ guidance we can appreciate how ideology feeds the machinery of power and give it its basis. However, we are left wondering for whose benefit does this serve? And, to what extent does this represent the actual lived experience of power relations within the home? Lukes’ analysis is instructive in bringing the concept of ideology into the discussion of power as it allows us to appreciate how the asymmetrical power relations between parents and their children are produced and sustained.
The Post-Modern Tradition:
In contrast to the modernist viewpoint of power the post-modernist position places greater emphasis on the effects of power in other words what it does and how it works. The post-modernist view attempts to conceptually free power from the ‘iron cage’ of what it merely is to the more intriguing question of how it is used. Machiavelli (1999) is attributed as possessing what we would now describe as a post-modern view of power because to him power is comprised of strategy rather than simply being present in any one individual by sheer virtue of his or her social status or role. He goes as far to argue,
… that the one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the time does not…men use various methods in pursuing their own personal objectives, that is glory and riches. One man proceeds with circumspection, another impetuously; one uses violence, another stratagem; one man goes about things patiently, another does the opposite; and yet everyone, for all this diversity in method, can reach his objective…This results from nothing else except the extent to which their methods are or are not suited to the nature of the times (Machiavelli, 1999,80).
Power therefore, is not a fixed concept instead it is subject to continual reappraisal of the strategies used and whether these strategies are suited to the particular historical and cultural context of the interaction. In Machiavelli’s hands power changes from being something that is out there and external to the individual to something that can be internalised, learnt and deployed in order to gain or maintain advantage.
Machiavelli’s theorising is particularly useful for the parent-child disciplinary dynamic, as it can take into account how the nature and substance of these power relations may change over historical periods of time. Writers such as DeMause (1991) have noted that parents in the past not only wielded greater power over their children -the form which this took would largely be construed as abusive to the modern eye– but that this is part of a social-psychological evolutionary process. Another more contemporary illustration is the increased global intolerance of parental use of corporal punishment as a legitimate means of punishment (Hodgkins, 1997). What both these examples demonstrate is that strategies of power can and will be influenced by transformations in social thinking. This is an issue that hereto has been overlooked by the modernist approach to power.
Parental discipline thereby, as a strategic manifestation of power is not merely control for dominance sake it has a distinct tutelary function. Through discipline, parents endeavour to mould the subjectivities of their growing child, in order that they internalise and espouse, as there own the interests and values of the prevailing social order. It is easy to recognise here that parental power bears an obvious Foucaultian (1977) quality. For Foucault, power is essentially a vehicle for social control and the maintenance and reproduction of the existing social structure; therefore, it is in and through power that individual subjects are made (Foucault, 1977, Rose, 1999). Power in the first instance is usually experienced as a force that bears upon the individual and constrains them until such a time that it is assumed as a natural extension of their being. Hence, parents through subjecting their children to regimes of discipline are not only employing but externalising their power with the expectation that it will lead to self-constraint on the part of the child. Power thereby, becomes internalised and rather than necessitating a controlling element from without individuals scrutinise and monitor from within.
For Foucault the body is the principal locus of power, as it is deeply invested in,
…relations [that] have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with the complex reciprocal relations, with its economic uses, it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination; but, on the other hand, its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body (Foucault, 1977, 25-6).
Disciplinary power is utilised to tame and eradicate any animalistic traits that may exist within our psyche and bodily deportment and in its place generate a production line of pacified and ‘normalised’ subjects. The object and purpose of disciplinary power is to standardise and categorise human behaviour into the discreet and familiar dichotomies of good/bad, sane/insane, deviant/non-deviant and normal and abnormal. The bad, insane, deviant and abnormal all have one thing in common, which is that their bodies have defied subjection and by default are considered unproductive, as a consequence they come under the full force of regulatory powers. Disciplinary power in Foucault’s (1986) account is not simply the power over an other or others that can lead to punishment, incarceration, or confinement it is the power to knowledge that defines these very discourses and lays claim to the truth about the ‘right’ and ‘proper’ development, conduct, behaviour etc…of the human subject. These discourses of ‘truth’ serve to possess a ‘hold over others bodies’ to ingratiate them into webs of surveillance, power and control (Foucault, 1977).
Parental power thereby derives it momentum from these discourses of disciplinary power, it is normalised, even customary that parents should scrutinise, probe, inspect, invade, colonise and judge the body, mind, and soul of the growing child. Parents are encouraged to obsess and dissect from the day of birth, the intakes and outtakes of their newborn child. Mothers in particular are concerned to gain information of the inner workings of their children through such odious tasks as inspecting their faecal matter and judging whether the consistency, colour and odour are ‘right’. This serves a double purpose both to check the health of the child and give the mother external confirmation on her proficiency as a parent. In this sense, discipline becomes a dual process, the mother disciplines the child and the child in turn disciplines or sculpts the mother into a capable parent. It is in and through these micro practices that are – largely unseen and even less discussed – that parents gain admittance and control over their children’s bodies and eventually their minds. It therefore becomes normalised and routinised for the child that no area of their body, minds, soul and existence is beyond the scrutinising gaze of their parents. It is through these various mechanisms of power that parents seek to discipline their children firstly through the body and subsequently through the mind.
Parental Power: A discussion
The primary objective of this working paper has been to examine existing theories of power and gauge the usefulness and applicability of these ideas to the parent-child disciplinary dynamic. Up until now the discussion has focused on situating power within its theoretical landscape. It is now however, the contention of the rest of this paper to organise these threads of discussion and weave them into a comparatively coherent narrative concerning the nature and quality of the power relations between parents and their children.
Parental Power as Power Over:
Parental power as understood from the tradition of Hobbes (1955) and Dahl ( 1969) constitutes what can be described as the dominant or popularist view of power. On an intuitive basis it appeals to our common sense assumptions of not only what parental power is but also what it should be. Parents almost certainly wield power over their children in the manner exemplified by the modernist position. Therefore, Dahl is correct in asserting that power in its most overt and observable manifestations does express itself in the formulaic terms of A exerting control over B’s behaviour and/or actions with the result being that A’s subjective interests are realised and B’s are overridden, ignored or suppressed. Parental power at its most efficient exudes an air of uncompromising sovereign authority with no capacity for manoeuvre or compromise. To be on the receiving end of this supreme power can be an intimidating and overbearing experience for young children, as data from my own previous research has revealed. Some children even likened the experience to bullying although undoubtedly, most parents would be mortified to learn of the effects that their normative use of power can have upon their offspring.
Dahl’s analysis however, becomes unsatisfactory because although it gives us a good demonstration of the embodiment of power, it offers us no insights into its impetus. Parents after all, are not automatons they are driven to implement power for particular interests, values or genuinely held beliefs. This is where the theorising of Bachrach, Baratz ( 1969) and Lukes (2005) becomes valuable, as it enlightens us to the possible motivations behind power. Parents do not blindly wield power over their children, they are motivated to do so for a variety of reasons some of these may be due to deeply held personal beliefs and others may stem from an unknown source. Regardless of their origin, once parents have invested in an interest, value or belief it is in their benefit to preserve that interest, any failure to do so may be deemed as a failing of their power. Parental discipline – as a manifestation of power – derives part of its strength from a parent’s ability to deliver consistent boundaries. It is at this juncture that it becomes apparent how the ideas of Bachrach and Baratz are congruent with parental disciplinary practices. Not only do parents possess interests and values, which it is to their advantage to defend but they also do this by recourse to sanctions.
Parental use of sanctions however, is not solely to coerce children into conforming to their own standard of interests or values but to that of the wider social group. Parental power is not monistic in either its outlook or application. Parenting is an inherently social phenomenon and as such is inextricably embedded in ideological convictions and expectations. If Lukes theorising is to be accepted then parent’s use of power is self-referential and self-sustaining, as it is their actual belief in that power and their right to wield it that gives it its basis and provides its impetus. Parental power under this model accentuates and preserves the asymmetry and ideological disparity between parents and their children.
Although modernist theorising certainly possesses its merits and has illuminated for us how the dominant view of parental power has manifest itself, it is still insufficient. We are presented here with a lop-sided, monolithic, ‘official’ version of parental power that lacks nuance, complexity, colour and life. Essentially this position is power over theorising, which conveys power as existing external to the individual and is expressed as an oppressive force. Power of this variety is unproductive, as it produces nothing but compliance. This theorising explains or more aptly justifies power from the viewpoint of those with power and consequently ignores the experiences of the ‘powerless’.
Parental Power as Power To:
The modernist view concentrates on individual acts of power and treats it as if it is a fixed and coherent entity, which can be consolidated and exercised at will. Parental power may emanate the appearance of a sovereign coalesce power but in everyday practice, this is far from the lived reality. From a post-modernist perspective, power has a productive quality and is not merely represented as an oppressive force. According to Foucault,
Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting targets; they are always also the elements of it articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power, and not its points of application (Foucault, 1986, 234).
Foucault’s thinking represents a theoretical shift from conceptualising power as a constraining force to an enabling influence; as such it is imbued with creative capacities. Power may still be exerted and/or experienced as described by Dahl, Bachrach, Baratz and Lukes however, this is not its consummation on the contrary it is simply another link in the chain of power.
Under this theorising parental power transmutes from a despotic force into a dynamic process. Parental power after all is not simply the exercise of power for its own sake; it is a transformative power, which seeks to sculpt the developing subjectivity of a growing child. Children are widely conceptualised as tabula rasa in other words they are born without prior knowledge or experiences of the physical and social world (Jenks, 1996, Locke, 1693, Rousseau,  1993). If this proposition is true, then it matters what their experiences and knowledge of the world are, as it will determine their character (Locke, 1693). Parents therefore, are charged with the precarious task of managing their children’s access, experiences and knowledge of the world in such a way that it does not result in detrimental outcomes on both an individual and societal level. Parental power thereby, is a productive power and should not be conceptualised as a power over but as a power to, a power to create, mould, and shape the developing character of a human child.
Within the post-modernist view, power is not only reconceptualized as a creative force but also as ever-present and all encompassing. Power is not simply located and consolidated within authority figures; it is dispersed and disseminated amongst all individuals. In the words of Foucault, ‘individuals are the vehicles of power, and not its points of application’ (Foucault, 1986, 234). Using this theorising, children can be recognised as not merely the recipients of power but as its willing consort. To acknowledge that children can and do exercise power is significant for theorising of parental power. Although parents due to their chronological age, social status and physicality possess particular strategic advantages that may make wielding power over their children appear unproblematic, the actual lived reality is somewhat different. Children are rarely passive recipients of the power their parents attempt to exercise, instead, they will draw on their own techniques and strategies of power in an attempt to deflect and exert their own autonomy and authority (James and Prout, 1997).
Parental discipline cannot be understood as unfettered autocratic control; rather, it is a creative, responsive and negotiated power. When practicing discipline parents rely on various techniques, strategies, methods, knowledge’s, and discourses, which are related to the context of the interaction and the individual concerned. Parental use of power therefore, is continually mediated by their children’s operationalisation of their own strategies of power. Conceptualising power in this respect integrates its intricacies and how it is neither situated here or there; rather, it circulates, interweaves and constructs not only the parent-child relationship but all social relationships. Coming to understand parental power in this context allows us to appreciate that it is not merely a one-way process that is acted upon subjugated underlings but that it is a reactive process that moulds, sculpts and creates the subjectivities of those within its influence.
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 This is drawn from my MSc Dissertation ‘Shared Secrets: A Sociological Study of Parents, Children and Discipline’, Department of Sociology University of Leicester 2006.