How I averted a power struggle and created a game instead

After I learned to Go for the Giggle, I had an experience with a child in which I could see two distinct choices before me of how to handle a potential power struggle.

It was another afternoon with “Kyle”, six years old, and “Neil”, who was two. I was sitting in the playroom folding the family laundry.

Just as I had almost finished, and was stacking some of the folded laundry into the basket, Kyle ran over and knocked the basket over, spilling the newly folded laundry on to the floor.

I felt a flash of anger and tensely asked him to pick it up. He refused and ran out of the room with a grin. I continued to fold the last of the laundry but left the basked toppled and waited for him to return.

I considered my options… “This could easily escalate and become a huge power struggle,” I thought, envisioning that scenario unfolding (pun intended).

I knew I didn’t want to pick up the laundry myself, but I also couldn’t force him to do it.

Suddenly, Kyle entered the room wearing his dress-up armor, carrying a sword and a shield.

He pointed the sword at me.

I asked again if he would pick up the basket. He said, “I didn’t knock over the basket.”

We all knew he was lying–we’d seen him knock the laundry over.

But I had an idea. I decided to play along with his game and see if I could spin this so that he’d actually WANT to pick up the basket.

“Oh Great Knight!” I exclaimed, “I’m so glad you’ve come! A laundry monster has knocked over my basket of laundry! Please, Great Knight, will you help me?!”

Kyle flashed me a smile and ran over to the basket.

After he picked everything up he pointed the sword at me again.

I glanced over and pointed at a stuffed dragon on the floor nearby “There it is Great Knight! The Laundry Monster! Slay it!” Kyle quickly directed his sword at the stuffed dragon–and away from me.

I felt triumphant. Not only had I averted a potential power struggle, we had actually remained connected, and had fun together in the midst of a potential disaster.

I got my laundry fixed, and he got to play and save face. In fact, as soon as I was able to take his lead and really play with him, he was able to cooperate.

In this instance, not only was I able to remain grounded in my own needs for safety and peace, but also I was able to make a clear request, to which Kyle could agree without feeling overpowered, forced, or coerced.

So, the next time it seems like he’s just out to get you, see what you can do to turn the tables to avoid the power struggle.

I feel so grateful that this time, I chose the path of ease, fun, and connection. I hope by sharing this story, I can offer you more options for avoiding a power struggle and staying connected with your child.

Thanks for being here!
Warmest hugs, Shelly Birger

P.S. What did you think about this topic ? Have you ever had similar experiences? We welcome your comments in the box below.


Did your kid suffer any consequences for lying and not listening to you? I'm all for having fun, but by the way you reacted, you are basically telling your kid its ok to lie and mess up your work. The reason you keep having these power struggles is because you obviously aren't laying down the law. You can set expectations without it being a struggle or without you coming off as "mean". You are the parent and he is the child. He must listen to you. If he doesn't listen, then there are consequences. My four year old tests me from time to time, but I stay consistent with my message and do not let him get away with that type of behavior. And he knows that so now he doesn't even test me. When its time to play, we play and giggle and role play. When its time to clean up, he listens.



I love it.

I use a similar method with my grand kids and other kids in my charge.

For example, when crossing the street, and I want the child to hold my hand (for safety reasons) I ask the child to hold my hand so I won't get hit by a car. Kids like to help. Even the most rambunctious youngster will usually do it.

I once met my son and his family at a park, and after play we decided to go get a pizza at a large mall. My grand-daughter rode with me, and after parking, we had a long walk across a busy out-door mall to get to the meeting place.

I told her I didn't want to get lost, and I asked if she would hold my hand. She held it all the way. What a girl!


Yes! Thanks for all of your comments. I love it that our website can be a place of introspection and interaction for us all.

Andrea, I'm glad you're remembering to have compassion for yourself. You're absolutely doing your best and it sounds like you're inspired to create even more connection and be able to maintain it in even more challenging moments. I'll just say, I've been there. And in the moments when I was able to let go of the illusion of control, recognize the needs of the child and empathize with him or her, everything shifted and became easier. Of course, I haven't yet written about the moments when I completely lost my composure, raised my voice, and heard my parents words come out. That's for another newsletter... :)

Heather, I'm so happy that these strategies are working for you and I'm curious about what's underneath your daughter's "need to be right". Is she avoiding feeling embarrassed or guilty? And is there a way to create so much safety for her that she might be able to admit to her mistakes but feel relieved or supported (rather than ashamed) in the process? Just curious what you think about that.

Anyway, thanks again for your comments everyone! And please let us know if there's anything else we can do to help and support you. Hugs, Shelly

Heather Koeppe Martens
Heather Koeppe Martens

Yes, This is a common theme in My House with My 6 year Old Daughter. She Has a need to Be right [ as in, "it was Not "me" who knocked over the Laundry Basket ] And so I think the pretend play [ go for the giggle ] has worked best. It has kept Spirits high and a Happier energy in the House!


Thank you for the reminder to stay connected instead of insisting on a certain way. I wish I would have read this column before my 3 year old son had a big freak out about not wanting to come out of the bathtub tonight.

One day at the time...there will be more opportunities to practice joy and fun in heated situation.


In terms of addressing lying with young kids, I've found that it's much more effective to talk about it when there isn't a current lie on the table. Confronting kids about their lies in the moment often just produces shame and disconnection.

Instead, I like to discuss things like trust, responsibility, and telling the truth, while we're at the park, reading a story, or having lunch. By doing this, we're building new values and concepts. So, don't expect kids to "get it" right away. Instead, look at the life long path of developing into an honest, trustworthy person and give your kids some compassion when they experiment with behaviors you don't like.

I definitely let kids know that lying isn't ok with me and it affects my trust. That in turn affects the freedom I'm willing to give them.

But for the most part, lying in young kids is a VERY NORMAL experiment. The funny thing about it is that their intention is to please us (or at least to escape punishment or shame). At about 2 or 3yo kids realize that we want a certain response and they try giving us what we want. Now it's up to us to catch their lies, let them know that we know the truth, and give them our compassion and trust whenever they tell the truth even though they're afraid.

Wow, I have a lot to say about this!

Last thing for now, personally I get much more concerned when older children lie. But I still think it's important to offer them compassion and understanding even while we hold the line that lying is not ok. If your older child is lying, ask yourself- what need is he meeting by not telling the truth right now?

I hope this clarifies things a little. Thanks so much for your comments! Love and hugs, Shelly

Shelly’s last blog post..How I Averted a Power Struggle and Created a Game Instead


OHMYGOD this is happening constantly with my two, almost four-year-old boys. Yesterday Jack thought it would be funny to pull all the mail out of the mail box but did not think it equally fun to pick it up off the ground and bring it into the house. I insisted he pick it up and it happened, one letter at a time, with me standing over him "PIck it up!" and him complaining the whole time "I can't" and moving as slowly as possible. I knew I wasn't being very effective or positive but I was determined that he do it and that I not "give in." Wish I'd thougt of the "Mail Mongering Monster!" I also wonder, like the other commenters, how to address the issue of lying, responsibility, etc.
Your columns are so helpful. Thanks!


Brilliant, and Fun!

I am also curious though, about any conversations to have afterwards, about boundaries, lying etc
I DEFINITELY prefer Shelly's playful aikido manuever in that critical heated moment, but afterwards I'd still be inclined to lay down some Serious clarity with my kid around flagrant disrespect (though not sure at what age that is even possible/fruitful)
Guess I'll be finding out in the increasingly less distant future (kendra is due mid-may,,,!)

AwakeShelly moderator

 Hello@erubin50, Actually, this story was not with my child, but with a child I was caring for. I agree that setting clear expectations and staying consistent is important. I'm curious, when you say you "do not let him get away with that type of behavior" what do you mean? What kinds of consequences do you implement?


Current research shows that punishment is actually counter-productive. Personally, I see the use of play instead of forcefulness as a great way to maintain connection and still meet everyone's needs. I don't need my child to "obey" or bend to my will every time. I would rather she choose to cooperate because she wants to than because she's afraid of what might happen if she doesn't.


 @AwakeShelly My son loves his cars. He has a ton of them, but he has a few favorites. "If you don't clean up the mess you made, I will take away your car for a day." - it works instantly. There should never be a power struggle because it all harkens back to who is in charge. It sounded like you tricked the kid into cleaning up rather than having him clean up because he was the one who messed up your laundry. I don't like to trick my kid by being all light and fun. If he does something wrong, i make sure he fixes it and apologizes for messing it up. Its not always easy, but taking the easy, light road like you did just enforces that they will do it again and you will have this issue over and over and over again.


Because I am consistent with my behavioral expectations, my son cooperates because he is learning what is right and wrong and that there are consequences when you misbehave. its not fear, its understanding cause and effect. Not so sure about your "current research" as my real life experience shows me something different.


I am convinced that this work we are doing now will teach him to respect all adults, not just his mother and father. What happens to your kid when they come across an adult that doesn't take your light easy approach? Do they know how to handle someone telling them not to do something or does everything have to be a game to trick them into listening?



 @AwakeShelly Thanks for the thoughtful reply.


My intention was not to convince you that my way is better. I was taken to your blog through a facebook post and what I read compelled me to respond, mainly because I have a lot of friends who employ Montessori teachings and I watch those friends battle mightily with these power struggle types of situation. I watch them as they seem to flounder. Their kids (about 10 of them ranging in age of 3-6) are always the worst behaved at parties and never listen when other parents ask them to do something. The Montessori kids are always distant, crying, they hit, and are normally off in their own world, not interacting with the other kids. I have a very large group of friends with tons of kids who play together regularly. And it is so obvious to me why the Montessori parents continue to have these power struggles you describe. They are not consistent. Sometimes its all "lovey dovey do what you want" responses and then sometimes they try and "lay down the law" only to have their kid shrug off their requests.


Whereas all my other friends (about 10 kids, same age range as above) who use my types of technique rarely deal with these power struggles and our kids play with each other and share appropriately and don't hit each other and listen and clean up. My way looks easy because I have put in the hard work to teach them appropriate social behavior. They are kids and they need to be taught this. They aren't born with these skills, which is why parents are there to help them understand how to interact with people.


I respect different parenting views and much like you are glad you use the Montessori techniques/way of life, I am super happy with my way of doing things. I am consistent and loving. I have defined what is right and wrong for my children. I mean this is the nicest way, but my consistency means I don't have to rely on a blog for advice on why I keep having to figure out ways to get my kid to clean up the mess he/she made.


I'm sure a lot of what i said has rubbed you the wrong way and i am pretty confident we can agree to disagree on a lot of this. Just wanted to state where i an coming from and I wish you all the best of luck.


 @erubin50 I'd just like to say that what Shelly did doesn't sound easy to me at all.  Easy for me would be to yell at him to pick up the laundry that he deliberately knocked over, which would probably not be a fun time for anyone, whether he complied or not.  And I'm guessing this particular boy would not.



I had a nice conversation with Shelly about this:


Damien: I like how you averted the power struggle and turned it into a gameI don't think there is any need to call him out as a liar and shame him about that.


Shelly: Whew, thank you for confirming my feelings on this.


Damien: the laundry monster idea was interesting though... it's almost acknowledging the shadow side


Shelly: That's what *I* thought! Thanks for reminding me of our shadow sides. I love that part of us!


Damien: and that he went with it seems to me he also took that in, it's like he is able to say "oh I was being a monster then, and now I'm going to be a knight"


Shelly: Yes.


Damien: It seemed to me like he was relieved not to be publicly shamed and forced to make it right. one is not bad and the other good, they balance each other out... or something... maybe I am taking it too far


Shelly: No, I like that. Will you please comment on my blog post with these thoughts?


Damien: Sure. I feel good reading about it too, it seems fun and much more enjoyable than taking away his favourite car for a day or some kind of punishment.


Shelly: I would really like to share this conversation with the whole community! Thank you! xoxoI


Damien: the impression I get from your article is that this child knocked over the basket by accident when running past and there was no disrespect other than he was busy in his game and didn't want to stop immediately to pick it up?


Shelly: It was more intentional than that.He wanted to see how I'd react.I experienced it as more of a test than an accident


Damien: and why not, testing and finding boundaries seems to me to be a totally normal behaviour for a child or an adult


Shelly: exactly!


Damien: the thought I had when reading some of the comments is...we so often try to make this massive distinction between adult and child. I'm the adult, they are the children. I don't think the distinction is that huge.


Shelly: Me neither. children need this kind of emotional input in order to learn how to behave.


Damien: for the most part I think as adults we are grown up spoilt brats. Maturity comes on an emotional level not a physical or mental one and most people still react like a child to any conflict or drama


Shelly: yeah. I still feel the same as I did when I was five.But with more experience and a bigger body.


Damien: so what I was thinking was which would I prefer?as an adult how would I feel if say my boss came up to me and says: "if you don't finish your work by 11am I am going to turn your internet off". I'd do the work and I'd also be cursing and hating him the whole time. I certainly wouldn't respect him and indignation is the feeling I think I get most. Or if my boss came and said "I notice you are behind on your work tasks... here is a technique I use for producitivty, maybe it will help you.."



My final thoughts... I think that any way to avoid shame and guilt, a sense of "what you did is wrong" is useful. I think the human race carries around too much guilt and shame as it is and the impacts of this on our joy, vitality and abundance is huge.

We know 'right' and 'wrong'... from a very young age we know because it's an emotional content not a mental set of rules or a physical set of circumstances. We know when we are wrong because we can feel it in our hearts.... until our hearts get clogged up with shame and guilt and we lose the ability to feel the consequences of our actions.


"When there is love there is no need for law"

AwakeShelly moderator


I’ve been avoiding responding to this so I could do so in a way that is not reactive, defensive, or attacking. And I’m glad I waited. I’ve had a lot of feelings about what you’ve written. 


First, I don’t see playfulness as trickery. In fact, you can be sure that I don’t EVER intend to trick a child into anything. I will encourage and direct and invite in multiple ways, but I think that’s just being creative and enjoying the moment!


Just for the record, I do remove objects from my daughter when they are unsafe, if she is not developmentally ready for them, or if she mistreats them. And I COMPLETELY AGREE that everyone in my home ought to pick up after themselves and help with common area cleaning tasks. However, I don’t like the idea of attaching the behavior (cleaning up in this case) to a negative consequence in order to gain her compliance. I would rather encourage a general helpfulness and willingness to cooperate than require my child to exchange access to her cars for her compliance. 


We both get the same behavior, our children clean up after themselves, but they do so for different reasons. I’m encouraging my child to clean up out of the joy of living in a beautiful well cared for home, and because she knows she’s a part of a larger community to which she enjoys contributing.


I'm guessing you get a child who cleans up his cars because he “respects adults” and doesn’t want them to get taken away. Admittedly this is my narrow view of what you’ve described here, but so far I like my approach better.


I’m not all that concerned that my daughter “respect adults” because I believe that she is a whole, capable, insightful, and trustworthy person who just naturally respects all living things, including adults. But I also want her to know that her opinions matter. I want her to feel free to express herself and follow her interests. Sure, I want her to say please and thank you and have good social skills, and she does!


I also feel compelled to say that I am not a "permissive" parent. And at the same time my daughter is also not often *forced* to do very much either. We can usually find a way toward mutual cooperation. Teamwork is very important to me.


I recently got an email from Montessori Services with this quote inside.


"Children thrive when given clear, solid structure, respectful communication and emotional warmth. They fare best when parents set firm guidelines within which their children are allowed freedom." —Angeline Stoll Lillard, Montessori, The Science Behind the Genius


When I read this I knew it was time to reach out and respond to your comment because I could finally feel some common ground with you. Maybe you won’t like it at all, but I thought you might.


Lastly I just want to say thank you. When I look for the positive intentions behind your comment it seems like you really care what happens to me and to my child. I really do appreciate that.


Thanks for keeping the dialogue going! Warmly, Shelly



  1. […] those of you with older children, here’s a blog I wrote called “How I averted a power struggle and created a game instead” which has another example of setting a clear boundary with joy in your heart. This happened with a […]