Thursday, October 6, 2011

Myth Series #1: I Can Control How My Kids Turn Out

For those of you who don't know much about my background, let me simply say this: I like control, in a variety of shapes and sizes. Of course, in my mind that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially given my history. I spent several years coaching and playing ice hockey, a game which, despite the way it is perceived, is one of structure and discipline. I have two college degrees, which while they did not involve all that much brain work, certainly required discipline and control to complete. I served nearly eight years in the Army, a quintessential example of control in action. And for the past 12 years or so, I have made my living in the world of business, surrounded by spreadsheets and data and facts which had to be analyzed so that detailed plans could be written and followed. So for me, in my life, and in my circumstances, there is a place - and a need, actually - for control.

Over time, I came to realize that control in some aspects of life doesn't necessarily translate well to others; for proof, just ask my first wife. When I became a parent, I began to see some interesting distinctions between controlling processes and controlling people. I came to understand that a process, as an inanimate object with no sense of purpose or thought, can be controlled in virtually any circumstance. But a person? Well, that's a whole other story. People think, they feel, they have their own goals and dreams and ideal outcomes, and as such can be resistant to being controlled, even guided, in ways they don't identify with. Influenced? Perhaps. But controlled? No. Not that knowing that stops us from trying, mind you.


The myth of control, especially when it comes to our children and their "destiny", is pervasive. And it starts from conception, in many respects. We don't call it control, mind you, because over the years we as a society have come to see "controlling our children" as a negative thing - which, by the way, it is. But we have not stopped trying to control our kids, we've merely repackaged the ideas of control with new words and phrases. Instead of controlling them, we're "teaching" or "guiding" them for "their own good", or "setting them up for success", or "influencing their decisions" so they can "be accepted in society."

But it's still control, and it's everywhere (WARNING, EXTREME EXAMPLE ALERT):

  • We let our babies "cry it out" so we can train them to solve problems on their own.
  • We move our infants and toddlers into their own rooms so they can learn to be independent.
  • We buy them educational toys so they can get a head start on becoming smart.
  • We send them to preschools so they can get into the best primary schools so they can get into the best high schools and colleges so they can get good jobs and grow up to be happy.
  • We make them take tap lessons and piano lessons and art lessons and then force them to continue, because kids need to learn how to stick with things that they do not love.
  • We make them play soccer and baseball, because kids need to learn how to work well with others.
  • We make sure that they get to bed on time and take showers and brush their teeth, so they can be presentable when they ship off to the school we make them go to.
  • We make them . . . well, you get the idea.
WHY do we make our kids do all of these things? Why do we emphasize control of schedules so they can meet commitments? Why do we emphasize formal education? Why do we focus on making sure that our kids are well rounded so they can get into the right college? Is it because we're bad parents?

For the most part, no. 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.

So there are reasons why we control. But to a large degree, those reasons are based on two very big myths. The first myth is that a child needs to have all of this control to be successful in life. Blinded by old paradigms that tell us that happiness and success are directly proportional to material and monetary wealth, we guide our children to achieve that wealth almost from the get go. There is a growing movement in this country to recognize that which many other societies already take for granted - that happiness has very little to do with wealth, and that in many ways education has little to do with wealth either. There are many ways to be wealthy and many ways to be happy, and virtually any corporate executive in America will tell you that they struggle with their choices when they look deeply into the mirror. Personally, I know a lot of very wealthy people, and a lot of people with a negative net worth. They all have the same fears and pressures and concerns, for the most part, but the poorer people are often richer in interpersonal relationships and passions. So there's that.

Many of us know all of that, and maybe have even done something about it. After all, it's actually fairly obvious, albeit difficult to attain. But the bigger myth, the ugly lie, is the illusion that all of that control will actually lead to a desired outcome.

Think about all of the controls we put in place in an effort to lead our children down a specific path: bedtimes, hygiene, food, studies, sports, arts, please and thank you, the words they use, the emotions they have, the thoughts they express, the games they play and the way they play them. We do this with a goal in mind, with an outcome that we think is best for them, with the knowledge that if we can mold them down this path their lives will be better for it, even if they resist in the near term. After all, we reason, we're raising kids for the long term, and our own experience tells us that we know best when it comes to what is right for our kids.

And then we turn them over to the school system, where we have no control over who teaches them, what they learn, how they are taught, or how they will apply that knowledge.

We turn them over to their friends and acquaintances, with no control over what they'll do, who they'll do it with, or how they will do it.

We send them to college, with no control over what path they take and how they get there, food choices, hygiene, bed times, graduation date, choice of profession, or anything else.

And then they move out into the world on their own, and whatever small semblance of control or influence we thought we had dissipates to nothing, almost overnight. Where they will live, who they will marry, what kind of people they will be, are all their choice. Of course, at that young adult stage we recognize that this behavior, this freedom of self-determination, is normal and necessary. And we trust that we have sent them into the world with the tools they need; after all, this is why we attempted to control so much in the first place. And maybe we have, through our efforts, been able to influence them to the point where they will make good decisions.

Of course, maybe not.

I mentioned earlier that the control we exert over our children can work in the short term. It may take effort, and we need to have the stomach for the inevitable conflicts, at least until our kids wear down and stop fighting. We can control bedtimes, and behavior, and school performance, and participation in various activities. Sometimes, we can do this with relative ease, especially if the child actually enjoys these activities. More often, it is not easy and sets up an adversarial relationship between parent and child that can last a lifetime. But it can be done, in the short term.

If, as a parent, you see your role as being responsible for your child getting out into the world quickly and with a decent job, then perhaps this short term view is enough. But there are negatives, severe ones. When we assume control of these aspects of a child's life we are robbing our kids of a learning and growth opportunity. We're 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 to approach these situations in ways that are far different than the way would chose to approach them - likely for the better.

If you see your role as a parent FOREVER, charged with helping your children be happy and thriving adults for a lifetime, then you cannot adopt such a short-term view of the "benefits" of control. You cannot rob your kids of opportunities to learn and grow; instead, you have to help them learn to love to learn, by allowing them the freedom to experiment and sometimes fail. You cannot subjugate the needs and desires of your children; if you demonstrate that their thoughts and passions have value, they will learn that they themselves are invaluable. It's not about controlling the behavior and environment for a short-term successful outcome; it's about building the life skills necessary for them to be able to define "success" in their own way and in their own time, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. Some of these life skills may indeed be the same, but others - love of learning, self worth, value, self determination, ability to experiment, the pursuit of passions - are virtually impossible to impart when a child is raised in a controlling environment. Many of us reading this still live with the lingering effects of our own upbringings and the impact of short-term - albeit well intentioned - control.

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, or in attempt to achieve an outcome. 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.

3 comments:

  1. I love this....and it's so true. As a person who has some strong control urges too, I constantly remind myself that my children have their own ideas/goals that may look nothing like what I imagined. :)

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  2. I know that when I see a post written by you that I am going to like it. You have such a way of expressing your ideas and I agree with them. Thank you for this article and I look forward to more.

    You are a great Dad!

    Kimberly Sharpe-Slage

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  3. I want every parent in the world to read and truly get this!

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