Indirect Power

Indirect power involves a strategy or process whereby parents obtain compliance through an indirect means. In contrast to direct power, this particular strategy generally doesn’t activate rebellion and therefore power struggles are minimized. Indirect power strategies include some of the most important parenting strategies of all time, as well as a few strategies that are somewhat playful and, some might say, manipulative.

The most important indirect parenting strategy is modeling. If parents don’t want their children to swear, they should avoid swearing (at least in their children’s presence). Children are strongly inclined to model their behavior after their parents’ behavior, especially if they respect their parents. There is scientific truth in the old saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Bandura & Walters, 1963).

Modeling highlights the perpetual 24/7 aspect of parenting. If you tell your child, “Don’t lie,” but then you call in sick so you can go skiing instead of going to work, or sit home on a night when you turned down a social invitation because you were “too busy,” you’re role-modeling the opposite of what you’re preaching. In essence, you’re asking your children to do as you say, but not as you do. And we all know how well that works! Parental behavior is often closely scrutinized by children, even when they don’t let on that they’re watching.

John recalls a particularly uncomfortable situation with his younger daughter when she was four years old. As he hurried on his drive home with her beside him in a child’s seat, they were forced to stop at a railroad crossing. Frustrated, John muttered under his breath a particular four-letter word generally associated with fecal matter. Much to his horror, his sweet 4-year-old instantly picked up the beat, repeatedly letting fly with the dung word until, finally, John came up with the bright idea of correcting her by compounding his mistake: “Oh no sweetheart, you’ve got that wrong. What Daddy really said was, ‘shoot!’ Try saying that, ‘shoot.’” When his daughter finally was able to satisfactorily mutter “shoot” under her breath, John felt a mixed gratification. He had lied to his daughter to stop her from using profanity:). Clearly, this was only a marginal parenting success and one that illustrates the complex burden of parental modeling:(.

The most common forms of indirect power are listed and described in our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” They include the following:

Table 3.3 Indirect Power Strategies



Character feedback

Giving choices


Wagering, racing, and giving audience

And here’s a description of one of these indirect power strategies:

Wagering, Racing, and Giving Audience

These indirect strategies are usually playful. For example, parents might say, “I bet I can eat up my broccoli before you do” (wagering) or “Let’s race and see who can get dressed and ready to go out to the car and to school the fastest” (racing) or “I heard you’re really good at your times tables. How about if you do a set for me and I just watch and listen?” (giving audience).

To be honest, wagering, racing, and giving audience are manipulative ploys. They involve enticing children into compliance using techniques framed as fun and competitive. As a consequence, some parents don’t like these particular parenting strategies.

Nevertheless, these techniques can be useful and are often employed effectively by some parents. For example, as described previously, with children who are slow at dressing themselves, an indirect intervention might involve a competition or race:

Okay, sweetheart, let’s see who can get ready the fastest. I’ll run to my bedroom and see if I can get dressed and ready to go before you’re all dressed. I think I’m the fastest, but you might be. I don’t know. Are you ready? Ready, set, go!

The problem with this form of indirect power is not so much that it’s manipulative (almost everything is manipulative in one way or another), but that it can begin to feel manipulative to children. Consequently, although parents should use positive role-modeling whenever possible, these more playful and manipulative indirect approaches should be used only occasionally.

2 thoughts on “Indirect Power”

  1. Great Post! We believe that parents should be the number 1 example for their kids. You can’t expect them to follow certain rules or parameters if you are constantly doing the opposite of what you are asking them to do. Having clear rules and letting children know the expected behavior will let the child be more relaxed and develop healthier habits

    1. Hi Madeline. Thanks for your comment. I’m often reminded of the fact that “Do as I say, not as I do” is pretty much a failure of an approach to parenting. Being a positive and intentional role model is HUGE. Thanks again!

      John SF

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