Achieving A Power Balance

By Matt Surber

‘'Because I said so” is about the worst response one can give a child when he or she asks ‘why’?” Usually the answer comes from exhaustion—we’re tired of dealing with the same problem over and over, so it’s time to wrap it up and move on. Other times it’s because we expect kids to know better and not need an explanation, and sometimes it’s genuinely mean-spirited, when we don’t want to engage because we don’t believe the problem or the kid to be worth the time to work it through.

We know a response like this is a poor one, so let’s discuss what we can do differently in the future.

First, it’s important to remember that just because we’ve dealt with an issue a hundred times doesn’t mean the child has. Perhaps we are tired of kids always running on the pool deck, or not putting away equipment. Even if we’ve told kids a thousand times, this is possibly the first time this particular kid has heard that statement.

Instead of a line like, “You should know why,” try a response like, “Why do you think that rule exists?” Turning the response into a question engages critical-thinking skills and encourages an independent thought process that often leads to the same conclusion but develops a kid’s sense of ownership in it. This approach is an opportunity for growth.

As authority figures with power, we can resolve most issues with a “because-I-said-so” attitude and move on. We own the power, and we can wield it to simplify our lives.

However, once we set down this arbitrary line, we create an “us vs. them” dynamic that most kids know all too well. Most rules are made without the input of those they affect, and as such create a struggle between the enforcers and the participants.

So let’s examine how to avoid abusing this power dynamic.

Logical And Natural
A good measure of the value of a rule is if we can quickly explain the reasoning behind it. Logical rules are easy to grasp for both concrete and abstract thinkers and leave little room for argument. Natural rules have a clear “if/then” structure (i.e., “If you drink too much milk, then you are likely to feel ill”).

Another example is “Don't run on the pool deck,” which can be quickly followed by “Because it’s wet, and you’re more likely to fall and get injured.”

We immediately understand the purpose of the rule and become aware it is for the sake of safety. The rule does make sense.

On the other hand, if the rule is something like “If you don't know my name, you have to go to the back of the line,” it will be difficult to follow that with any sort of logical or natural reasoning. These types of rules often create tense interactions because we suddenly end up standing for something that is difficult to defend.

Personal And Specific
Rules in this category are dangerous and difficult to enforce. “Don't touch my stuff” is a prime example. We create a situation that applies only to ourselves. The only person with a vested interest in supporting the statement is the person who creates it. When a person takes that approach, an “us vs. them” scenario is created.

Communal rules cover the rights of an entire group with equal support. “We touch only our own belongings” is a rule that defends each person. These types of rules also create a plurality of folks who are willing to stand up for its enforcement, making the use of power much less necessary and much more equal.

Communal rules are to be developed with the help of those who are most impacted by the rules. I like to start each camp group session by creating a covenant that outlines the rules campers want to have enforced. They almost always cover the rules we would write down, but it’s more meaningful coming from the kids.

All of this leads to two questions:

  • What types of rules do we have?
  • Why do we have them?

If we are simply using rules as a way to keep a power balance in our favor, we take away crucial developmental opportunities from kids because we don’t want to take the time to work through problems.

As authority figures, we always have the final word in a situation, but instead of using a rule structure to shut down manageable problems, we need to create a space to engage them. This allows kids a chance to critically discern how to move forward in a mature, thoughtful way.

Take the time to evaluate what rules are self-serving and which are dismissive, and see if you can leave space to deal with the problems worth having. It is a difficult step but ultimately one worth taking.

Matthew Surber is the program director for the West River United Methodist Retreat and Camping Ministries in Churchton, Md. Reach him at (410) 867-0991, or