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How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from effective parenting to control freak?

January 28, 2013

Growing up, it seemed like most of the parents I knew were struggling simply to manage the basics for their kids. Perhaps it was where and with whom I was raised, but it stands out to me in stark contrast to my parenting peers today. We aren’t struggling for the basics, but we are certainly struggling.

I can’t help but wonder, though, would our kids be better off if we sometimes just let go of the reins a little bit?

I’ve seen a common theme emerge in some of my most well-intentioned friends. They want so badly to be great parents and do all of the right things, and yet sometimes all of that extra effort seems to bite them in the you-know-what. Why? Because their efforts in parenting are directed at controlling their child’s every move, not at building their child’s capacity.

And when a parent grasps for control, even in areas where the child appropriately should have some autonomy, a power struggle ensues. And guess what? Somehow, children are born knowing exactly which battles they can win. The kid who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables knows that ultimately you can’t make him eat anything he doesn’t want to.  The little night owl knows that, in the end, you can’t actually force her to go to sleep. The kid who resists potty-training knows that no matter what you say, he can poop in his pants if he feels so inclined.

So, what do we do, then? Excessive control just doesn’t work. It doesn’t teach our kids to make better choices, but instead teaches them to get better at outsmarting us. But, letting go of all of the rules and guidelines isn’t the answer either, because we know that children thrive when parents provide sensible boundaries and structure.

Learning the division of responsibilities

When these sort of power struggles arise in our house, I’ve started to think of them in terms of a division of responsibilities. I first heard that term from Ellyn Satter, a pioneer in the world of nutrition. She uses it to explain how to feed children, but I think the concept is generalizable to all of parenting.

To be an effective parent, we need to be clear about the boundaries. Which decisions are we as parents responsible for and which areas should our child be free to exercise his own will? Letting the child own those responsibilities in an age-appropriate manner builds their decision-making skills and self-esteem. You are establishing a pattern that will continue for years to come- guiding your children as they learn to make the right choices, not simply forcing the right things upon them.

I truly believe that if they are allowed autonomy in the appropriate ways, they won’t feel the same drive to engage in a power struggle with you. And as the years go by, and the stakes get higher as children turn into adolescents, they will be well-equipped to make healthy and wise decisions.

In practical terms, what does that look like in our house?

At mealtimes, my husband and I provide the meals. We decide what, when, and where our family will eat. It is my daughter’s responsibility to decide whether and how much she will eat. There are many nights when we sit down for dinner and she is not pleased with our menu. It is her responsibility to sit at the dinner table without complaining, but if she doesn’t want to eat, that’s her choice. It has happened often enough that she knows her tummy will be hungry by bedtime if she makes that choice.

Clothing is another area where she wants to assert her independence. This is an area where there aren’t too many health or safety constraints (except wearing shoes out to play or a helmet riding a bike), so there’s more freedom for a kid. I let her have that freedom. Most days she looks like a miniature Cyndi Lauper with a t-shirt, a tutu skirt over mismatched pants, and more fake jewelry than one person should ever wear. A few weeks ago, she wanted to wear a Thomas the Tank Engine Halloween costume with a Santa hat as we ventured to Target. She wore it and loved it.

Is it perfect? No. We have dirty, little handprints on our once-immaculate couch. We have pink chalk drawings on our back door because a 3-year-old decided to “decorate” it. We lost at least ten of our Christmas ornaments to slippery little fingers that wanted to “help.”

Her choices don’t always result in the outcomes I might want. But, in the end, I am simply the guide; it’s her journey.

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