Do you sometimes find yourself trying to control every movement your child makes, the words that come out of their mouth and how they are said? Do you expect them to do exactly as you say and become exasperated when they don’t follow your lead? Wouldn’t it be easier to raise a puppet that you could control?
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a school counselor is that I have no control over my students’ behavior. The most difficult lesson I’ve learned as a parent is that I have no control over my children’s behavior.
It’s quite a concept.
Once they make their way into our world as newborns, we are in control of what they eat and how often they eat, but not how often they cry to let us know they are hungry. We are in control of how much we change their diaper, but not how much they soil it. When they are toddlers, we are in control of their nap time, but not if they actually sleep. We are in control of taking them out of situations when they are throwing a temper tantrum, but not if they have one or not. When they are in school, we encourage them to consistently participate, do their homework and appreciate the value of education, but we do not control whether they actually do it.
We do our best to manipulate the situations, taking things away, offering solutions, creating rules and boundaries, all of which are imperative, but we do not control whether or not they respond to our manipulation and consequences, no matter how well crafted they may be.
The worst part is when they discover that they are in control and we’re not ready to give up our puppeteer gig. For me, my first lesson was potty training. It was torture. Both my kids were two when they started and both kids were three when they ended. I had an agenda and for some reason (my guess is two years of built up resentment of me trying to control them), they did not adhere to my expectations. I would say go, they would say no. They went on the potty when they wanted to and didn’t when they didn’t. We tried EVERYTHING to manipulate them, read all the books, tried all the tactics and then when they decided they were ready, on their terms, they were officially “trained.” I remember being at my wits end with my daughter and going to visit my grandmother and saying to her, “Well, Grammie Button does not allow diapers in her house, so you will have to wear underwear and she does not allow pee on her floor.” She replied “okay” and that was it. No accidents, no problems, no pee outside the potty. She respected her great grandmother and wanted to please her and that was enough to change her behavior. How I had wished I had tried that tactic earlier! But it wasn’t for me to control, it was for me to offer opportunities for her to decide what worked for her.
I counsel parents in my job equally as much as their children. The most typical concern I hear is that they can not control their child’s motivation to do school work and are looking for ways to “make” them do what they want them to do. I used my potty training woes to let them know I could relate. They used to laugh, but really, the issues were the same. We expect a certain behavior or reaction from our children and when we don’t get it, we question everything we are doing wrong and relentlessly try to find ways to control our children to respond in a way we are comfortable with.
We have the illusion of control and for a long time, most of them buy into this illusion, until one day they discover the truth that they are in fact in control of what they do, think and say. Sometimes they embrace this reality in a way we want them to and sometimes they throw this reality back in our faces and torment us.
And here’s the hardest part, we are frustrated by our inability to control them, yet isn’t independence the end goal? Do we want our children to feel controlled by those around them, rely on others to think for them, respond for them and tell them what to do or do we want our children to think independently, question their influences and be in control of their own lives? The puppet strings are attached to help support them in the beginning, but need to be cut so they can walk on their own.
Personally, I want to direct my children’s thoughts, feelings and actions up until the point that they have “perfected” the way I want them to react to life and then I will set them free and let them live on their own. Probably age 25 or so. But since, I’m pretty sure they are going to discover their personal freedom well before then, I am trying to really hard to accept this reality.
So if we don’t have control, what do we have? The simple answer…Faith.
Faith that we are doing what we can to teach our children what works. Faith that they will make decisions that benefit them and keep them healthy, safe and happy. Faith that when something doesn’t work for them, they will learn what does, with or without our support. The more we lack faith, the more we want to control. The more we try to control what we can not, the more frustrated we become. And the cycle continues.
But faith we can do. We may have to practice to recognize it, but we live it everyday. Its part of our life’s show. We can control our own strings and our own performance, with the intent of influencing our audience along the way, but we have to believe without knowing that their will be another night to perform and they will always come back for more.