Originally published: 21.05.17
Control is a bit of a dirty word isn’t it? It’s had a bad press anyway, it has connotations. I have been told in the past “you’re too controlling” and found it impossible to defend myself against that accusation, it’s very slippery – do I say “No I’m not!” or is that too controlling of the agenda? I think what I have done in response is to laugh carelessly as I imagined a really laid-back person would do, trying desperately hard to show that I could let go.
It is good to be laid-back, chilled, careless and able to let go. I have read that.
It is not a good image these days to control, to be controlling, to be uptight, to try hard to make things happen the way you want, to not go with the flow.
I know now that it’s a good thing to feel like I’m in control; I like it, I feel in possession of myself. When it comes to parenting I think it’s a necessary state to be in as a backdrop to the flexible, fairly free and easy approach to managing life with children which I enjoy best. It’s like a kind of ‘buck stops here’ line in the sand which, because I know it’s there, allows me to let go and trust more in day-to-day life situations, without stressing myself out worrying about every last detail.
Being in control can mean allowing freedom and space. It’s my decision to facilitate that family atmosphere and I can stop it any time I want if a child oversteps the mark, by imposing restrictions, or stating my honest views and greater wisdom. The difference, I learned over many years, is between controlling a child’s every action versus being in overall control as a parent.
There is a saying, isn’t there, that you can’t control other people’s thoughts and actions, you can only control yourself and your response to them. With children there is a lot which it is your job to control: not only their behaviour but what they eat and what time they go to bed, things like that, and that is all to the good because those things are your decision and a child is generally happier if you just get on and make those decisions without apology. It’s when the control over-spills into other areas that it’s good to remind yourself of that saying.
To try to control a child’s every action, choice, activity, attitude and thought is exhausting and counter-productive even if it’s because you want the best for them. I’m not only thinking of the ways we try to change a child (by arguing, shaming, lecturing or belittling) but also the ways we take on their issues and shape them and steer them in order to maintain our illusion of being in control of our children’s lives. Controlling a child’s life can be disguised under layers of praise and approval and advocacy; there are manipulative ways of exercising control too.
I don’t want my kids to grow up feeling more comfortable with controlling people, I don’t want them to feel that sense of safe familiarity when they meet someone who uses controlling tactics on them in whatever guise, whether it’s coercive disapproving judgment or flattery and agreement with everything they say. In fact I would like my kids to recognise control, feel uncomfortable with it and run a mile. To that end, I sometimes act out a humorously exaggerated coercive and controlling way of getting them to do something, just so they know how it feels (hilarious, apparently).
I would rather they gravitate towards people who trust them, respect them and allow them the space to grow as separate human beings, but at the same time would not be afraid to stand up for their own beliefs and challenge them directly if they thought they were being stupid.
This is what I mean by ‘being in control.’ To me it means getting that balance between allowing and facilitating a child’s growth in independence as their own person, at the same time time as not being afraid to say ‘no’ and standing up when my line in the sand is crossed. Stepping back and allowing a child the freedom to explore and make mistakes; stepping in and using my parental authority when necessary. Control is an inevitable aspect of parenting and it’s not a dirty word, it really is all about how you exercise it. Being controlling is definitely not a good look, but being in control – that’s just another way of being the adult.
Stephanie Davies Arai: I’m a feminist, mother of four and I blog about how we communicate with our children. Very interested in cultural influences and neuroscience. @cwknews