Control vs. choice

April 30, 2011

The more I work with parents and children, the more I realize that much of the conflict they experience comes down to a matter of control. The older children get, the more control a parent exerts. It’s a battle of wills that invariably leads to a lose-lose outcome.

While a parent’s intent may be to provide security and safety for their children, a controlling parent stifles the sense of responsibility and maturity we wants kids to have. It prevents kids from developing an important life skill – making positive choices.

Of course the solution isn’t to turn over complete control to our children. There are obvious ramifications of this response too. Children need the guidance and mentorship of an adult.

So what is the balance between control and choice?

First, it’s important to understand that control and choice can’t be turned on in full force once you decide it’s time to release kids into adulthood, which is a common occurrence. Parents raise kids with strict control over their decisions and behavior, and then overnight expect them to be responsible adults when they become of legal age.

Control must be released over time and choices must be expanded over time, spanning from early childhood to high school age. Most parents operate in the opposite – granting more choices when kids are younger, and then reigning in choices during the teenage years.

It’s no wonder young adults are angry and resentful toward their parents! Their choices are being stripped away with each birthday.

No matter where you are in your parenting journey, you can offer your kids choices. If it’s something that you haven’t typically done, then ease them into it. The difference is like sipping from a refreshing water fountain and taking a swig from a high-pressure fire hose.

Here are a few tips for teaching kids the power of choice while releasing your parental control:

  • Offer kids choices you can live with. Otherwise, you’ll run into kids picking the option they know you don’t like. Also consider whether you’re willing to let your kids live with the consequences of their choice.
  • Give two choices, but also make sure kids understand there is a third, implied choice: you’ll decide.
  • Consider your words. Instead of demanding, “You pick! You can do this or that. What do you want?” say, “Which do you prefer…?” The key is your delivery. Make sure kids feel like they truly have a choice, not just a decision between two negative alternatives.

Question: What are some of your concerns about granting kids more choices in their lives?

image credit: idea ablaze via Flickr

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“I wish my son would just take responsibility for his actions,” laments a mother of a 14-year old son.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much responsibility this boy was given when he was younger. You see, kids can’t learn what they haven’t already been given. So, if you want to teach your child responsibility, give him some.

But parents these days are protective. It’s so bad that the media and some experts have dubbed these hovering, in-their-child’s-faces parents “helicopter parents.” They pay such close attention to their child’s problems and experiences that they stifle the development of necessary life skills, like responsibility.

So while a helicopter parent has good intentions, the constant hovering and protection she offers does little to bolster her son’s ability to take responsibility for his actions.

Similarly, if you want your child to give you greater respect, you must offer it to him in turn. How many times have you spoken to your child with a tone of disrespect (veiled in parental authority)? I have. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. We’re allowed occasional missteps. But if regular modus operandi is that of disrespect, then that’s what you will receive in turn.

Listening is another area where parents and children struggle. The principle holds true in this case as well: plant what you want to grow, or give what you want to receive. If you want your child to listen to you, then listen to her first. Plant the seeds of listening, then nurture the skills and watch it grow.

The essence of the “plant what you want to grow” principle is simple. Children, especially young children, learn through observation. Your words have value, but not as much value as your actions.

Your kids need to see what it means to take responsibility, have respect, and listen. Everyday your children are being exposed to lessons on these critical life skills, and a plethora of others – from friends, other adults, media, etc. Often the lessons being taught are in conflict. Here’s an example:

My friends want me to lie about where I’m going after school so I can hang out with them.

A young person with helicopter parents is ill equipped to make a positive choice in this situation because he has never been allowed to make a choice without his parents hovering over him. But a child who was given responsibility and allowed to make choices (even small ones) in the past has the life skills he needs to make a positive choice.

Will kids slip up? Will they lie to their parents so they can hang out with their friends? Definitely! They’re human, just like their parents. Mistakes come with the territory. But a child who is taught foundational life skills like responsibility, respect and listening, will overcome those mistakes and learn from them.

Today, consider what you want most from your children. Then plant the seeds.

image credit: popofatticus via Flickr

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