Breaking The Cycle of Dominance

Humans have a deep problem with dominance. As just a first indication, consider that our status quo systems are dominance hierarchies, with a few important people at the top making decisions, and with everyone beneath them merely obeying. We complain about this incessantly, we try to create rules to keep it from abusing us too badly, but most of us never consider changing the structure.

That is, we all know that the dominance hierarchies of the world are sources of pain and frustration, even of destruction, yet we don’t look for alternatives. Clearly there is something wrong here. It’s simply not sensible to suffer without at least trying one alternative after another (actual alternatives, not just new faces in the same old structure), to see if we can find one that hurts less.

The dominance hierarchy is the model of primates: of baboons and chimpanzees. That we should be following the same model, century after century, without seriously questioning it, should give us pause.

What’s more important for this discussion, however, is the way this model impinges upon our children, and particularly the way it is passed-along to them. And the primary way that’s done is with our patterns of speech.

This is a big subject, and so I won’t try to cover every aspect of it here, but consider the assumptions behind our ways of speaking: Once almost any sort of argument forms, very quickly, and without any conscious choice to do so, we jump into a fight for dominance.

We’ve all experienced this: A disagreement over resources – even trivial resources like a toy, or a remote control, or a piece of cake – pass instantly into a fight over who’s “the right one” and who’s “the wrong one.” We hurry to specify degrees of wrongness before considering solutions, like perhaps taking turns.

That is, we’re locked into patterns of winner and loser, right and wrong… of dominance and submission. If we spent half the energy required for these arguments on actually solving the underlying problem – observing the issues without emotional reactions – we could resolve them quickly.

Most of us, however, and most of the time, go right to “I’m right and you’re wrong.” That’s a problem, and comfortable or not, there’s a fundamental fact we must face about it:

This is a primate model… a dominance model: It blows right past resolution of the problem and directly to who’s right and who’s wrong: who dominates and who is forced to submit.

We can do better than primate models of communication… models that simply don’t accomplish our goals. And what I’m explaining today is that we can go a long way toward fixing this problem, simply by not teaching it to our kids.

Yes, I know this feels like sailing off the edge of the known world, but all sufficiently novel concepts feel that way, and after years of dealing with this one, I can’t find any honest way to exclude it. We may not be able explain it perfectly, but I can’t find any serious challenge to its underlying reality.

The Complication

The complicating factor here is that parents do act as dominants over their children, and they more or less have to. If we didn’t, our kids would end up being seriously hurt.

So, what we need to accept and work around (and explain to our kids, repetitively, once they’re capable of understanding) is that our oversight (enforcing conduct) is more or less full when they are infants, then slides downward, petering out by the time they’re young adults. This is simply a necessity of human life.

And so, our dominance over our children is to be benevolent, intelligent and declining. Making this work in real life is challenging, to say the least, with myriad and uncertain judgment calls to make. And yet, we have no real choice: If we don’t tell them what they must do when they’re young, they may be frequently injured or worse. And if we don’t let go at the right times, they’ll be injured in other ways.

And so we do the best we can, adapting and apologizing when we realize we made an incorrect decision.

How To Not Teach Dominance

Unfortunately, the jump into dominance speech (using terms that can only resolve into winner and loser) comes instinctively to us, and so it’s not something that’s easy to avoid. It can, however, be noticed and corrected. Then, over time, it will be effectively removed.

Children raised in this way will enjoy clearer and more comfortable thinking than other children, and will grow into healthier adults. We can’t be specific on this, since nearly the whole of the world is running against it, but all important changes begin in difficulty and uncertainty.

We correct dominance speech, first by noticing it and teaching our children to notice it. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to spot, when looking at it from the outside. You’ll particularly recognize it because it uses absolute terms like never, always, any, have to, everyone, deserve, must, and should. And notice, please, that all of these are conclusions.

Here are several examples of absolute statements, final judgments, each followed by a more accurate and useful alternative:

    • You never do anything I want. (The last three times I suggested something, you said no.)
    • You’re always procrastinating. (You said you’d have it done Tuesday, but it’s not done yet.)
    • You’re being a slob. (You haven’t put your laundry away for three days.)
    • She’s a liar. (She said he’d have it fixed today, but it’s not.)

What you want to communicate is that no statement of this type actually resolves a problem. In fact, it makes things worse.

We must help our children understand that by inflicting judgments upon others, we spur them to inflicts judgments upon us. And by doing this, we forget about finding a solution to our problem.

Here are a few phrases to pull out in such situations:

    • Stop. Are you going to beat each other up with your words, or to fix the problem?
    • Listen. You’re not fixing things, you’re just fighting. So, once you’re done wasting your time, come back to me and I’ll help you solve the actual problem.
    • Wait a minute and look at what you’re doing: You’re not fixing anything; you’re just biting and clawing at each other. Now, if you can let go of that and think about what each of you actually needs, I think we can fix this right away.
    • Let me ask you something, are you making a request or a demand?
    • How about this: Rather than telling her what you don’t want, tell her what you do want. And you: tell him what’s preventing you from giving it to him. What do each of you really need?

You’ll notice that in each case, the first step is to somehow pause their thinking. That’s because this kind of fighting is sub-rational. That is, it is spawned by instinct and only then uses facts and arguments… and as weapons. Once you stop that, reason can return.

Try not to condemn children for doing this, because it’s an inherited human weakness, and not something to feel inferior about. What matters is to step away from the assignment of blame (even blame to self), and to return to direct and reasonable thinking.

Once your children get firm on these concepts, you can laugh about your silly instincts. (Laughing at one’s self is often a very healthy thing.)

We’re Early, Which Makes Us Essential

As I noted earlier, these are things that the world doesn’t do. And that means that we’re early. Or, said differently, we’re among the first to recognize a primitive error the rest of the species is making.

This isn’t a particularly comfortable position to occupy, but it gives us an absolutely essential role to play. It is precisely by persisting in such efforts that we improve the world… that we improve our species. The first to see, comprehend, and act… these are irreplaceable individuals; they are the first movers in human progress.

And if we do see, then for the sake of our children, ourselves and the world in general, we must act to get this upgrade started.

Dominance thinking – polarized thinking – not only stops us from fixing our problems, it stops us from actually seeing each other. And so we’ve been perishing for want of appreciation.

For reasons that will become clearer over time, and for the immediate happiness and effectiveness of our children, we must teach better ways and we must persist in doing so, regardless that the world that doesn’t yet see.


Paul Rosenberg