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Parents Initiate a Culture of Control?

I spent the day with a friend recently and we spent some good time talking pie in the sky about living together in community – lots of us talk about wanting it and yet … who is doing anything about it? And what is it we want anyway? We arrived at some interesting conclusions during our little dissection.

What we want is connection, we are social beings who learn from each other and, to varying degrees, enjoy the fun and games benefit too. We want support. We like to be in the company of others who share our views or challenge us in ways we like to be challenged. What else?

We very reluctantly concluded that what many of us fantasize about as we dream of living in community with one another is to be taken care of: having others cook, garden, share child care responsibilities and home construction and equipment purchase – so that we don’t have to have as much responsibility, spend as much money, work so hard.

My friend and I have both done lots of research on intentional communities and agreed that we hadn’t discovered one yet that ‘worked.’ We wondered if it was due to the fact that folks entering such communities have as a base fantasy the desire to be taken care of. If so, it’s no wonder communities are less than functional. In fact, even within our own families, those very small communities most of us live in, I would venture to say that they are less than functional when any member of the family believes the others have to take care of them.

Aside from infants who require dedicated care, even toddlers are desirous and capable of ‘taking care of themselves’ in very real ways. They can and want to choose their food, feed themselves, choose their clothes, dress themselves (mostly, or at least they WANT to and are willing to keep trying), choose their preferred activities and friends, among many other things. Are we supporting their desire to take care of themselves or thwarting this? We harmfully thwart their natural desire for self sufficiency and independence when we choose their clothes for them, make them eat what we prepared instead of involving them in the choices of what to eat, enlist them in parent chosen activities instead of exposing them to a comfortable range of options and allowing them to experiment and choose on their own, etc.

If a small toddler learns that another is responsible for making decisions for them, that someone else knows more than they do about what they want and what feels best, then it’s only natural to follow the progression and jump to age 6 or 8 or 10 or 12. Heck, a lot of kids I know in those age groups still have parents who are making decisions for them and think they know more about what the child should want or eat or what activities are most enjoyable. Guess what, when a parent in this role is ready for their child to start making their own decisions and become accountable and enjoy life and be self motivated, they can’t, because they’ve been classically conditioned not to.

Hmmm… it’s no wonder then that lots of full grown adults, who grew up as children of parents who ‘knew more than they did’ continue to move through the world just (naturally) expecting that they will be taken care of – by governments, spouses, cultures, PPOs or HMOs, employers, etc. In my perfect world we would be replacing this conditioned thinking with personal responsibility, and it is so naturally learned right from the start. So what if our toddlers and kids are wearing mismatched clothes, choose not to brush their hair, eat dinner foods for breakfast, prefer friends who are 10 years older than they are or opt out of the team sports in favor of poker? They are engaged in that magical, powerful and empowered process of making decisions and living with the rich, fully accountable feelings that result.

parental control

The dichotomony of traditional parenting is ironic and detrimental in both rights. On one hand, most parents are devoted to the ideal of turning out self-sufficient, ‘successful’ adults at the age of 18 or so into the world and out of their homes. Having an adult child still living at home is commonly viewed as a parental failure. (Hmm- another blog post?) On the other hand, parents are curbing children’s desires to make their own decisions and do for themselves at almost every juncture. From picking clothing to friends to how to spend their time, children are instructed by parents, well-meaning adults, and schools as to what is appropriate, for how long, and the expected goal.

This is most obvious to parents whose children have attended and been removed from school. While many parents do not see the detriment of their own controlling and directive parenting techniques, a child constantly in need of direction, unable to occupy their time or identify and invest in their curiosities or interests has obviously been affected by the consistent limits, structure, and follower mentality of the school system. The effects of this can take years to resolve such that the child operates based on their intrinsic intention and motivation once again.

If we have as a goal that our children will function independently, is this not what we should facilitate? We do this by offering our opinions and support but not in making the final judgment. I’m not talking legitimate safety concerns with young children here. Readers feeling fear in the lack of control they are feeling in reading this will immediately jump to that. But, realistically, how often are our children’s decisions (you know, the ones we’re interfering with) actually related to their immediate physical safety?

Parenting is so often synonymous with controlling. In order for children to experiment with independence, control, and outcomes, they must have the ability to exercise them. We need not fear the teenage and early adult years if we have facilitated our children in empowered decisionmaking and individuation up to (and through as desired) the years of separation. The fact is, we don’t know ‘best.’ Maybe we are wiser. Maybe. In my experience, children value our input based in our own experience. And so, parenting is more accurately synonymous with communication. Why don’t you want to continue with piano lessons? What is it you love about poker? What draws you to this friend?

I find your assessment of the continued need for control (mislabeled ‘care’ by many parents) in adulthood eerie and accurate. The fear of operating independently is sheltered by other systems in place of parental control and school as people age. These systems capitalize on the lack of independent thought and fear and keep the majority of the adult population wide-eyed and fearful with membership cards, prescriptions, and expectations to keep them firmly in the hold of mediocrity.

The solution? Introspection and evaluating our own personal choices. What drives our decisionmaking? How can we improve our communication and interactions with our children to support their process and experience rather than govern it ourselves?

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am going through a period of confusion surrounding this topic at present. I am so attracted to most of the philosophy of unschooling/natural, interest led learning BUT….in practice….My boys went to school for a few years and we are into our 2nd year of homeschooling. We have been unschooling the last half a year. Over that time, I have noticed the boys pursuing their interests more and more but becoming much less inclined to act respectfully! As in “no, I won’t clean up my room, it’s my room and I’ll have it as I want” or “you can’t tell me what to do” etc etc. They are 7 and 9. I also fear my eldest is forming a serious screen addiction, as this seems to be his first ‘port of call’ upon waking most days. We live on a farm and have bucketloads of books, resources, art supplies, animals so it’s not like he is starved of options!
    My conflict is this: while I agree that it is really important to follow your passions and do what interests you in life, it is also important to not live completely in your own ego! I am not ‘religious’ but am certainly a fan of the idea that happiness comes through service, effort and selflessness. How do you allow self direction while also cultivating these qualities? And what of the screen addict?

    December 9, 2011
    • I would guess that the screen time is leading to the “disrespectfulness”. Rudeness, sarcasm and aggression are modeled on most kid’s TV shows and video games and children often imitate what they see. I would make sure that their actual needs for connection with you are being met- If a child feels disconnected, that child is likely to be more challenging. School certainly is a place they could have picked that up at as well. Focus on some one-to-one fun time and cuddle time with each child.

      December 9, 2011
    • disrespect does not come in the form of “no, I won’t clean up my room…” that’s just self ownership and something you might allow yourself to feel good about – it is their own space afterall, right? Can you allow yourself to see that we all need our own space to do with as we choose? Surely you feel this way about your bedroom or your kitchen or your sewing room?

      As for a serious screen addiction, what other options are available for them? Are you offering interesting, intriguing, compelling alternatives for them? They are only 7 and 9 afterall and are largely unaware of what the world has to offer them. Take responsibility for showing them the world, or at least offering them the possibilities: meeting diverse people, traveling, new hobbies, places in the area to explore, etc., etc., etc. The options are unlimited, right? This isn’t about forcing or requiring them to engage, but in seeking options that satisfy their natural interests and readiness.

      WRT service. effort and selflessness… at their young ages, you are their best role model. Are you living these truths that are important to you? Are you enjoying them fully? Are you radiantly alive with the joy these actions give you? If so, your children are watching and learning and will want to be a part of it.

      December 11, 2011

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