Will, Power & Motivation

And what about two year olds who are in charge?

Where there is a will there is thé way

What is will?

A person’s choice or desire in a particular situation. Merrriam-Webster

Free will?

Within your will you experience yourself. This is already noticeable in a two-year old: The experience of an injury to the will as an injury to the self. The two-year old is taking on a momentous battle with the desire of its family to shape this child to their own expectations, to the cultural pressures bearing down on the family, and the Zeitgeist that envelops all. A Freudian battle ensues between id, an immature ego and the superego, would be one way of putting it. [1]The most effective parents have impressive skills of sublimation and redirection, shaping the child’s will gently yet firmly, but without the threat of annihilation of the child’s will and therefore nascent identity – or even worse, distortion of the child’s expression. The former usually leads to rebellion and/or depression, the latter to mental illness.

A tired child is an irritable child. We all know that. “What do you want?” asks an exasperated parent.

To give a tired child a hiding for being irritable means to confuse tiredness with ‘being naughty’. When enough of these experiences add up, the child begins to confuse his (or her) own inner signals, and in time, those of others. Thus happens distortion – or what is known as ‘a lack of emotional intelligence’.

Attachment research is based on thousands of hours of observation of the interactions between infants and toddlers and their caregivers, all coded from video. One of the findings refers to the tendency of a caregiver to follow a child. The colour of this one simple skill provides us with a peephole into the world of humanity. If frustration and anger are brothers, then being followed is the magic wand that evokes harmony.

Following (Harmony vs. Irritation)

A baby and an adult are cooing, faces close together. The mother is mimicking the infant. Suddenly the infant stops, turning its face slightly away. Mother stops, is quiet, watching baby. This is a mother who intuitively ‘gets’ that the infant is taking a break, is regulating the interaction. The baby turns its face back, and the interaction continues. A response like this is natural, and occurs independent of culture or socio-economic class.

Mothers in shantytowns do this as often as mothers in upmarket apartments. A different mother interferes, tickling baby’s face to get its attention back. Baby becomes restless, squirming. This is also natural human behaviour, occurring everywhere. The outcome for baby and mother is O.K., but here will be a tenser baby and a tenser mother.

Largely consistent early experiences of sensitive flow or curt interruptions create different patterns of being. Bath times and play times provide everyday examples of allowing a child to set their own pace, or not. This is also at the root of the development of self-regulation. Stopping or interfering with a child’s normal inclinations for exploration and play on a regular basis, is one way of undermining self-regulation as well as inner motivation.

If you had sufficient experiences of being in flow as a child, this becomes part of your body memory. This memory is something that you can tap into at times of distress as an adult; inner experiences of being in harmony and of the world being a good place, and so the people in it.

Interruption is the opposite of flow. I have often wondered if some children with ADHD have not been constantly interrupted since they were babies to such an extent that the neurological substrates for focused attention never had sufficient opportunities to develop.

Intrusive and critical parenting: The opposite of smooth, flowing interactions are interruptive, intrusive and critical interactions. This is one clear link that has been replicated: the link between severe psychological difficulties in adulthood and having experienced intrusive, critical parenting as a child.

Intrusion has become pervasive.

The loss of the large extended family and safe communal neighbourhoods has resulted in near constant adult supervision with much less freedom for children. Over-involvement has become the norm in many families. This has also lead to the over-psychologisation of childhood. The will of the parents and the will of the child are becoming one thing; a claustrophobic enmeshment that well-intentioned parents try to solve by increasing their engagement.

And then there is the general lack of quiet and of space.

Two sides of a coin

I watch as a father opposes the will of a son, who looks about seven years old.

We are on the beach, and the son has put out a sandy hand towards the apple on offer.

“Go and wash the sand of your hands first”, barks the father.

“It’s ok, I will eat it like this”, responds his hapless son (Does he not know by now?)


Why oh why is the human so stupid? Can he not see that he is stoking a rebellion?

The other side of the coin

The meme of “choice” that is en vogue with many aspirational parents, combines free will with immature power – a well-meant, but unfortunate combination that results in exhaustion, frustration and despair. In a local grocery shop my ears pick up a conversation between a couple standing in the aisle with frozen goods. The man makes a food suggestion, and the woman responds with a worried look, ” I don’t know if she will eat it.” She is about 18 months old,  sitting in the shopping-trolley looking smug and tense, as mother holds up two boxes with frozen products, ” Would you like this?” Mother’s voice is pleading and anxious. The meme of choices gone wrong, wreaking its havoc on this family.

When I started out my practice in 1990, the most common referrals by parents were bed-wetting (usually a symptom of a child not coping with what could be a difficulty within a wide range from learning difficulties to parental enmeshment or discord to abuse), anger (read frustration) or lack of motivation (often related to insufficient autonomy granting).   In the years between 1990 and 2004, I had two referrals of a parent not coping with a two and half year old. In the past three years a parent not coping with a pre-schooler is a weekly occurrence. At the core: An imbalance of power.

A young child who has been given too much power, clings to it like an addiction, and develops an immature form of it, a type of pseudo maturity, which causes unrest and stress, not only in the child, it fans out into the family and the school. A child with too much power too early, is an unhappy child, who can own all there is to own, but craves more because the hole in the middle where security is supposed to be (adults are in charge and all is well), is uneasy.

This is also an ironical consequence of the practice of “giving choices” in the belief of empowering children. “Do you want the yellow plate or the blue plate?” Do you want to wear the t-shirt with the truck or the puppy?” Soon a child comes to believe that these things really matter. That is of great consequence. So that when the child demands the yellow plate and it is in the dishwasher, parents look at each other: Calamity! These beliefs tend to grow tentacles, so that children can become potentially unhappy about a myriad of truly inconsequential things, with the potential for unhappiness residing in a multitude of what should have been smooth interactions. A world in which a young child is in charge is a scary world that the child tries to control by exerting childish control over childish things.

  • Power is addictive, even a toddler feels that. Power over food – a primary survival need – is enormous. Our children are increasingly robbed of spaciousness, freedom and security, ironically also by the imposition of too much power, too soon.

As I watch adults giving tiny children power over their diets, I have to suppress sarcasm, and a sense of powerless despair rising in me: What do they expect their children to base their food choices on, knowledge of nutrition? What used to be named Adult-onset Diabetes is increasingly diagnosed in children under the age of nine. Is nutrition not supposed to be a non-negotiable adult terrain, like not running into the street and never putting your finger into a power socket? At the World Association for Infant Mental Health conference in Leipzig in 2010, I noticed for the first time a separate category for “Eating Disorders”. (Infant mental health is for 0-3 years). I watch surreptitiously as slinky mothers order grilled free-range chicken for themselves, and pizzas with processed ham and cheese for their children.

  • When adults are not in charge, a childish power surges through demanding instant gratification, unhappiness spreading through families like marmite on their daily bread.

Am I advocating the return of authoritarianism? No, just sanity.

To honour the will of a child



“I want to do it myself”

“Me did it!”

Achievement. Satisfaction. Pride.

Personal accomplishments are the bedrock of satisfaction. Joy. Peace in old age.

A child will express its own will naturally through play, and in the small choices that they make spontaneously. The child who wanted to eat the apple with a sandy hand was saying, “It is ok with me this way.”

“Put your books in the bottom shelf.”

“But I want them in the middle one.”

This is not a threat to your authority. It is a simple expression of choice that can easily be honoured.

Children will spontaneously play “house”. They will play out good and bad, will mimic funerals and festivals, will have pretend guns and babies, wear funny clothes, be happy on their own in no longer warm baths, splash clean clothes in muddy puddles, attempt things on their own impulse. All we need to do is to let them be.

Self-regulation and the Internet

Whole books are written on the topic of self-regulation. Many regard it as thé mental health topic of our time, with both children and adults struggling equally. To add a penny’s worth: We are living in fluid times. Solidity is increasingly found in fundamentalism. What to do when life becomes one big uncertainty? When stress is pervasive?

A new generation is on the uprise. This is the generation that has two identities: one in the here-and-now and one online. There they have families, friends and enemies, they have an alter ego, a whole persona with a different personality, wearing different clothes and a different set of skills. Why not rather live there? Over there life is far more in control, it is more predictable, possibly more exciting, and certainly more soothing than life out here. The World Wide Web has become a soother, an escape route, of note.

Our will tells us that we have the potential to make a free choice, to be. To will is to be. Without some will you won’t be able to get up in the morning. Can it be that a will is one of the central forces of being alive?

Will and Dignity: Is a person without a will not a person without dignity? Is the fight for our will to be done, not also a fight for our own dignity? Is forcing our own will onto others not a denial of their dignity? So that we have an interconnection of will and dignity and power; a web of liveliness or a web of destruction.

“But what do you want’? Many have asked this in despair. “I don’t know”. “ I am not sure”.

So many injuries from willing wrongly. And from others willing you wrongly.

Yet the persons who walk into my room are quite sure of what they want: To be better. To be cured. Not to be so anxious. To have a relationship saved. Not to be so sad. This is a will in which they have faltered, despite their best efforts, and often also the efforts of those around them. This is the most plausible reason why help is sought. They walk in with their shame and despair at having failed at their own will for their lives to be different.

What is depression and grief but an injury to will. To become separated from your own will. What is anxiety but an attempt to control a potential threat to your will. Willpower is a neglected term in Psychology (we prefer softer terms such as motivation and resilience), but without a will to power, how would you make your way in a world that is inevitably an obstacle course over different terrains, how will you stand your own ground, and how will you feel truly alive? Will, ambition and positive self-pride are intricately connected: As the song about love and marriage goes, “You can’t have one without the other.” And as there can exist no perfect kind of willpower (as in the story of the three little bears: too small, too soft, too hard), what would be “just right”? I don’t claim to have the answer. I can venture that if you look into your own life, you can take your own measure.

Will, as you can gather, is a tricky bugger. Who knows what the will is of someone with severe despair or anorexia or hypochondria or addiction – to die or to live? We have to find the will to create. To be.

People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.                  Thomas Szasz, Psychiatrist

[1] id refers to our natural instincts or drives, they are often unconscious, ego is the “I”, the self that is known, whom we will conceive ourselves to be (we also have an ego-ideal). Superego refers to the development of conscience; the internalization of moral standards.

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