Nancy Pelosi can be a model for mothers everywhere. She is quoted saying that as a mother of five and grandmother of nine, she recognizes a temper tantrum when she sees one. But it is not only recognition that is at work - it is the quality of the response.
Mothers generally also recognize tantrums but can be stymied in their response.
Two- and 3-year-old’s render big, strong parents helpless by their behavior. In part this is because an adult reaction is often one of trying to stop the behavior, forcibly or otherwise - a no win effort.
Pelosi’s confidence in her own understanding of the situation leads to unshaken expectations for appropriate behavior - without useless attempts to stop what is inappropriate. No threats or angry rebuttals. Just calm expectation.
Some attribute Pelosi’s success to her having real power in her position. We are accustomed to thinking of power as the means of achieving our ends. Historically and culturally men have had that power and have used it, at times, for controversial goals. That power model extended to the family - “father knows best,” but also had final say. Yet somehow, mothers’ influence has been pervasive. Take note of the jokes of comedians and the words of novelists.
Lost in the reliance on power is the role of a different power. This is the power within relationships to influence the behavior of others. We know that as children grow, they learn to modify their self-seeking behavior, motivated in large part by the wish for parental approval. The loss of approval carries more weight than threats or punishment.
Children do not graciously accept parental authority. They are defiant and rebel in various ways. Three-year-old’s tantrum in an attempt to find their own voices. Teenagers seek their own power in place of parental authority, not yet having learned the responsibility and risks involved in the use of power.
Pelosi appears to recognize a developmental context for unacceptable behavior. She apparently referred to the demand for a wall as “a manhood thing.” This tells us that understanding why someone is doing somethings can help us figure out what to do about it.
Being stuck at an earlier stage of development leads to inappropriate demands that can’t be met. Having a tantrum if you don’t get your way isn’t successful even for a 3-year-old - unless it intimidates your parents. As a mother, Pelosi gets it. You don’t reward inappropriate behavior. Cancelling the State of the Union address politely, without anger, delivered that message.
Childhood behavior that demands gratification without considering the needs of others too often makes others angry in turn. Pelosi’s experience as a mother has taught her the use of mother power. The absence of anger means the absence of a partner who will engage in childish attempts at self-assertion.
At the same time, rejection of childish behavior does not imply an unwillingness to search for other more constructive ways of meeting a need that has been expressed. The importance of compromise is something mothers teach as an important part of their power.
Compelling compliance through the use of authoritarian power doesn’t work well with children - or adult citizens. Nancy Pelosi offers a model of a mother’s power that can work with both.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.