There are many parents out there who spend much of their time with their children trying to get them to do certain things, like homework or chores, or to teach them how to do things “right”, like spelling words correct or spreading peanut butter without making a big mess. If you ever see these parents in action, there is one thing that jumps at you – they are stressed and almost everything their kids do makes them jump.
And that is no way to live. It is not good for the parents and it is not good for the kids.
What happens in these situations is that the parents try to control their children. In fact, they try to control the fine details of what their children do, say and sometimes even feel. They tell themselves and anyone else who will listen how important it is to get all the answers on every assignment correctly. That is how they justify the hours of grilling their kids over homework. They explain the long-term impact of passing a basketball using the scientifically proven motion on their kids’ sporting future. That is how they justify the yelling from the sidelines and the intensive drilling at home.
But how important are these things really?
Who are they really important to?
And what are the effects of this controlling behavior on the children, the parents and their relationships for the rest of their lives?
In parents’ defense, I would say it is probably the way they were brought up themselves. I even think many are doing better than their parents did, considering the circumstances. They do not know another way (unless they have read enough of this blog).
In a strange way, by trying to control our children, we give them power over our levels of stress and our emotional wellbeing. By nagging, correcting and micromanaging them, we give THEM control over us. They simply use our obvious motivation to throw us to the mat and pin us down.
Ronit and I had a couple of good friends with a 5-year-old boy who refused to eat “good food”. His mom begged, threatened and then offered a bribe. “If you eat your lunch/dinner/food, I’ll buy you a big ice cream”, she would promise. He would then say, “No, I want my ice cream first. I’ll eat the food after”. She would buy him the ice cream, he would eat it and then refuse to eat anything else. She would go absolutely nuts, but then do the same thing again the following day.
She was so eager to get him to eat some healthy food, she made a big deal out of it, so he leveraged it to get what he wanted every day and twice on Sundays (literally). She cared so much about how his eating habits reflected on her parenting quality, she put her little son in charge of her self-esteem.
This kind of situation is very scary for the child. It means the parent does not have a sense of priority and enough self-confidence to be in charge. Kids view their parents as almighty and being able to shake them so easily makes them unable to rely on the parents for their own security.
So what should parents do?
The secret to trading failure to control with real power involves developing a personal perspective, having clear priorities, focusing only on truly important things and assuming a coaching position.
How to develop a personal perspective in parenting
As always, start by finding a quiet time and place, then relax by taking a few long, deep, slow breaths. Once you are calm and your head is clear, imagine the last scene in which you tried to control your child and ended up pulling your hair out.
Freeze the scene, as if everyone in it suddenly turned into metal or stone (ice is too cold). Now, float out of your body and position yourself opposite the image of you. Take a good look at your face and your body language. It is very likely you will recognize a fear in yourself, which you have not been aware of, but seems to be the source of your pressure during the scene.
Ask yourself, “Why do I really want my child to do [whatever it was]? What was I afraid would happen if he/she didn’t do it?”
In many interpersonal conflicts, at least one party considers their views universal and absolute. Often, by accepting them as personal preferences, the conflict goes away. In a struggle with your kids, it is important to realize that although you may believe you are doing what is best for them, you are always first and foremost serving your own interests. When you are afraid of something, you become defensive and uncompromising. That is just human.
Now ask yourself, “Realistically, if I said and did nothing that time, what is the worst thing that could happen?”
In our friend’s case, her son would have become hungry over time without ice cream, which would have given her enormous power over him, because then he would have eaten anything she allowed him to eat. If only she overcame her fear for 30 minutes or so…
How to have clear parenting priorities
No matter how many times we ask parents this question and no matter how we present it to them, what parents want most for their children is happiness. They just want their kids to be happy. The rest is just ways to get there.
Now that you are calm and being honest with yourself, ask yourself, “Would my kids be happier if I taught them how to do everything right or if I let them experience life on their own?” Again, consider the most recent incident or perhaps the most common conflict with your kids for perspective.
As a minimum, children need to be healthy and safe. Beyond that, they need to be happy and learn how to stay healthy, safe and happy on their own. Anything we force them to do that serves another aim hurts everybody.
In our friend’s case, the little boy became less and less secure and more and more defiant, searching for the point where his mother would finally provide a boundary for him. He was not happy, she was not happy and his father was not happy. A few years later, the couple split and the boy went to live with his dad.
How to assume a coaching position with your kids
Kids are just little people. They are people in the making. From the minute they are born, we need to treat them as individuals. They are not us. They are not part of us. They grow up in a different world and have different needs and different physical and psychological abilities and limitations.
If we deal with them to serve our own happiness, this will often result in conflict. They may not be able to explain it to us, but they can feel it.
But if we do our best to help THEM get what THEY want out of life (using age-appropriate methods, of course), there will be fewer conflicts, our kids will feel safe and supported and life will be good for everyone.
A split second before responding to anything your kids do or say, stop, breathe, look at the scene from a neutral position (do the scene freezing exercise above until you get the hang of this), find the response you believe will make everybody the happiest and then act.
If you do this for a while, your kids will learn to trust you. Then, when you need to stop them from doing something they shouldn’t, they are likely to just follow your guidance, because you always look after their best interest. This belief in you, this trust, this confidence, is the real source of power in parenting.
So stop controlling your kids. Relax, focus, let go and be powerful.