Control: Take It, or Leave It?

I've had the house to myself this week, as Ginger and the kids are in Corvallis enjoying friends and doing some house hunting. Long separations are usually a challenge for me, because I would much rather be surrounded by love each day. I have been able to do some packing and some writing, though, so despite the quiet house it's been a good week. Tonight, I've been reflecting on a few things and playing with my possible blog topics for the week. As I was sitting here taking notes, the movie Toy Story II came on TV. I love that movie; it's smart, and funny, and incredibly well done overall. But it also reminds me of one of my worst parenting moments ever. There have been a few to choose from to be sure, and they are becoming much less frequent and severe than they once were - but this one was a gem.

Toy Story

Before we began our unschooling journey, we were much different parents than we are now. We were always connected to and engaged with our children, but we also controlled much of what they did. Some of the control was fairly subtle, like ensuring that they said "please" and "thank you" at the appropriate times - no less damaging for the subtlety, mind you. There were other areas in which our controlling behaviors were more blatant, like our controls on TV. We limited what they could watch, and sometimes how much of it they could watch. But when the boys were five and three, they watched Toy Story II just about every day. Allowing them to watch the film at all was a big step for us; up until that point, we had watched mostly Veggie Tales and Little Bear, wholesome movies with virtually no violence. But we decided to take the plunge, and after watching it a few times as a family, we let them watch it by themselves.

And then the fighting started. As they watched, the began to act out what they saw in the movie, as kids are prone to do. Some of their acting started gently, but some of it escalated into hitting and yelling at each other, behaviors that were not okay in our home by any means. And so I talked to them and tried to reason with them, to let them know why they should not fight. But as their behavior continued and my frustration level grew, I knew that I had to "man up" and make one of those difficult parenting decisions to stop it. So I did the only thing I could think of at the time.

I threw the movie away - right in front of them, yelling the whole time. I put it in the trash, and then took the trash to the dumpster. And, of course, they were devastated.

But in my mind, I knew I was right; after all, I was saving them from the terrible influence of something that lead to them exhibiting unacceptable behavior. And though it was hard to do and hard to deal with after, I knew that I had done the right thing. Because after all, parenting means you have to make hard decisions sometimes. Parenting means, at its essence, that you need to control your child's environment so that you can protect them from the ugly aspects of the world, like violence, drugs, and teenage sex. Right?

Control: The Need and The Illusion

Well, it seemed right at the time. But over the past several years our journey into unschooling has lead us to question the traditional role of a parent. When I look at traditional parenting now, I do see plenty of goodness in families that respect, like, and play with each other. But more often than not, I see strong elements of control. Control is a slippery concept, because it is difficult to completely turn your back on. I believe that we all need a certain amount of control over some of the things in our lives. That amount can be different for each person based on brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, fears, etc. If we operate under the fundamental thought that we all need a certain measure of control, then it's a quick leap to this: if I have firm control over something in my life and I lose that control for some reason, I will strive to gain control over something else in my life to balance my overall Control Account. It's simple accounting, really; a debit in one place leads to a credit in another.

In real terms, it works like this, at least for me. When things are going great at work - when I am valued, when I know what I'm doing, when I can measure my success, when good things are happening - then I feel in control of work, and I am able to completely let go at home. When things at work suck, then I feel out of control at work. My brain somehow determines that I need to control something, dammit - and so I control whatever else I can to get some sense of balance. I always try to control "insignificant" things first, like responding to emails, cleaning the house, doing dishes, restocking the kitchen, etc. When that doesn't work well enough or quickly enough, then I become the Sabo Family House Jackass because I attempt to control everything that happens at home. This isn't intentional; I don't want to be the Jackass. I try to control other stuff. It just doesn't always happen.

That said, control, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. For proof, think about things that need to be controlled for an orderly and safe world - wild dogs, air traffic, criminals, whatever. If everything were out of control, the world would be a wholly unlivable place. So control can be good, and is in fact necessary. What makes control bad, in my mind, is one of two things: exercising control in inappropriate ways (bullying our kids, for example), and failing to recognize that our partners/children need to have a finite measure of control over something, just as we ourselves do.

When I decided to throw out the movie, I was feeling extremely out of control in my outside-of-home life - and I was also still of the mind that a parent needed to control in order to do their job properly and prepare their children for the real world while protecting them from any harm. And so I did take control, bullying my children along the way to conform with my own view of right and wrong. They enjoyed the movie because it helped them explore their feelings and bodies; they were beginning to take control of their reactions to stimulus. But I saw that as out of line with what I needed to do to protect them from the violence they saw on TV.

It's Hard

As a parent, letting go of control is hard - very hard. Sometimes, we control because we feel out of control in other aspects of our lives, and we need to control something in order to stay in balance. But sometimes we control in an attempt to protect our children from having to endure some of the things in life we know are difficult - broken hearts, misdirected efforts, wastes of time, etc. After all, we know all of the shortcuts because we've already been through it. We know how to get through life with efficiency and expedience, in ways that will protect our own hearts from pain. And because we have learned from our own mistakes, we have a strong desire to help our children live their lives as error-free as possible. And so we try control a variety of things - TV, food, sleep times, educational choices, friends and lovers - with generally positive intent, but often negative results.

But when we assume control of these situations, like I did when I threw out the movie, we are robbing our kids of a learning and growth opportunity. Not only are we enforcing our own needs and desires, thereby subjugating the needs and desires of our children. We're also robbing them of an opportunity to learn some of life's lessons for themselves, in their own way and in their own time, and in terms of what is important to them.
We assume that if they experience difficult times that they will suffer in some way, and we want to protect them from that suffering. But while that may be true in many cases, our kids are different than we are, and are therefore likely of approaching these situations in ways that are far different than the way would chose to approach them - likely for the better.

I am not suggesting that we should never offer our ideas, or thoughts, or the wisdom of our own experiences. When we are engaged with our children, they will look to us to help them approach these challenges. But there is a difference between offering these things as a partner in your child's life, and controlling these things in an attempt to prevent your children from experiencing the difficulties of life. If we help our children approach their lives through a framework of what is possible when we learn and experience new things, they are far more likely to view these challenging times in ways that far exceed our hopes and expectations with their maturity and balance.

Nobody's Perfect, But . . .

All parents - even the best ones, whoever they may be - struggle from time to time. Some days are brilliant, some days are difficult, and some days are miserable. I periodically catch myself thinking that I am a horrendous father - like when I think about throwing out that movie - but I also know that it's the crappy parents that don't think they're crappy. Parents who want to be better usually care enough - and have courage enough - to evaluate whether or not they're doing well. Perfection is not the goal; growth in an environment of joy and peace is. And letting go of our need to control is the first step.


  1. Well said, as usual. Control is pretty much a universal issue, I think. I certainly wrestle with it constantly.

  2. Gorgeous, Jeff! I'm passing this along to a feller - new to unschooling - trying to wrap his mind around this very issue. Thanks for a timely post.

  3. Thank you, Jeff! "'s the crappy parents that don't think they're crappy." Well heck, I'm pretty sure I'm crappy more often than not!


  4. "Parents who want to be better usually care enough - and have courage enough - to evaluate whether or not they're doing well."

    And the beautiful thing that occurs when the same parents are able to be honest with their kids about their own growth and/or regrets, is that the kids have the opportunity to bestow their gracious forgiveness on their parents! That is a wonderful and humbling experience. ;)

    Great post Jeff! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

  5. Well, this time I'm from Sibinik (which is an 1 hour south of here) but that's pretty close.

    I can only add to the praise. It's another thought provoking piece from you.

    So how would you in your current understanding of control have handled that situation if you could do it over again?

  6. control and responsibility... yelling at the kids while throwing out the movie probably demonstrates frustration at feeling out of control for sure, but everything else had failed, or all the ways this guy knew at the time, and he felt a responsibility to his kids to keep them safe. Obviously the kids fighting had got to the point where safety had become an issue. Intervention at this point is necessary and I believe wanted by our children - it is what they expect from parents. What kind of intervention? We can only use the tools we have in our parenting toolboxes at the time. Looking back, with hindsight and a whole heap more tools, can lead to guilt, or, as in this case, it can help to show others some of the tools that are more effective in parenting responsibly.

    I don't think it matters much that we slip down the slippery slope of control every now and then as learner parents, so long as we talk to the kids about what is going on in our hearts and minds, honestly, with awareness of self. Using 'I' language - 'I feel confused, out of my depth, I don't know what to do when you guys fight because I feel helpless. I don't like feeling this helpless as a parent. What do you need to stop fighting, how can I help? Are you happy fighting, is it getting you guys anywhere, because I'm really, really unhappy watching you fight...' let the kids know that their actions are having wider consequences. 'I think that you're role playing bits of the movies, but taking it into everyday life, so it's not fiction any more, I don't see this as you being you at all, but someone else, this isn't my little boy I'm seeing here and I feel worried about him...' We can use language to help our children find the words to describe what is happening. With luck they might be able to reassure us and we might feel more confident to let them work out the issues in their chosen way.
    But ultimately, we do what we have to in order to keep our children safe. If we slip up, we can always apologise as soon as we realise we have.

  7. You articulated something I struggle with as an unschooling parent (ok, struggled with even before having kids) and framed it for me in a digestible way. Thanks for that:)