Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.


[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bonfire.jpg. 

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