It’s true: I’m a control freak. So shoot me. Being a control freak caused its problems in my life, I suppose, but life trundled along well enough. Motherhood, however, forces me to take a closer look. With motherhood, ‘I’m a control freak, so shoot me’ turned into, ‘wait, I’ll shoot myself.’
My desire to be in control is so innate that I was puzzled why the phrase had such a negative connotation. My shelves of self-help books and years of various therapies and spiritual explorations eventually informed me that control is an illusion. I learned that we have neither the right, nor the ability, to control another person. I practiced this concept on the adults in my life, with some positive results. Buoyed by this success, I decided to apply the concept to parenting.
When I became a mother, I didn’t want to be the kind of parent who is always saying ‘do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, no, it must be this way,’ etc. etc. I felt sorry for children whose lives, in every aspect, appeared to be controlled by someone else. How could they develop autonomy, critical thinking skills, independence of thought and opinion? Wouldn’t they feel utterly smothered and controlled? I wanted to be the kind of parent who led and guided rather than dictated. I believed that my child would easily and naturally follow my lead in learning how to get along in the world. I believed that accommodating her preferences was respectful and even that I was modelling for her, how to accommodate others’ preferences. I couldn’t see any reason to insist on any particular way of doing things. (Relativism gone horribly wrong?) I was mistaken.
The paradox of motherhood is that, although we have neither the right nor the ability to control another, mothers do have to control their children.
By the time my daughter was three, I began to wonder if I had this ‘can’t control anyone’ thing terribly wrong. By the time she was four or five, her behaviour informed me that my ‘subtle guidance’ was – um – ineffective. What this child needed was ‘do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, no, it must be this way,’ etc. etc. In other words, she needed black-and-white instructions for living. So I provided them. And she resisted them while she thrived, her behaviour improved and harmony in our home increased.
The trouble is, between her natural character (‘strong-willed’ gives a mere whiff of what she’s like) and my early touchy-feely approach, she developed the ability and desire to control her own destiny, on matters as weighty as whether the carrots were cut straight across or on the bias, to whether to pair the poisonous yellow crop-top with the purple spotty leggings.
Battle had been joined. It rages on. Here was mothering showing me painfully and repeatedly and in excruciating detail, exactly how control is an illusion. It was time to expand my thinking, and to embrace the paradox of control/no control.
Naturally, I consulted books. I discovered this excellent parenting advice: it is good to give your children choice, but not overwhelming choice. It gives them enough self-determination to help develop independence without overwhelming them with choices their brains are not equipped to make. How sensible! I tried it.
Here’s how it looks in my house: ‘Would you like an apple or a pear for lunch?’ ‘Melon.’ Or, ‘Would you like to go to the beach with a friend or have a quiet day at home?’ ‘I want to go to soft play with my friend.’ Or, ‘do you want to make your bed before breakfast or after breakfast?’ ‘No.’
Where does the wise parent go from here? Not feeling like a wise parent, I couldn’t say. I can assure you that engaging in a battle of wills only leads to mutual frustration and often fails anyway. Discussion and compromise are, in our house, euphemisms for a battle of wills.
Giving in Honouring her wishes is not always practical.
So who is in charge here, anyway??
Baffled by experience and un-rescued by theory, I considered my own childhood.
When I was a child (that over-used phrase!), it never occurred to me to disobey. My mother doesn’t remember it quite like this, and I’m sure I resisted her on occasion, but as a rule, if she spoke, we did. And if my dad so much as raised a bushy black eyebrow, my brother and I fell into line more or less instantly. I have definitely not inherited that innate sense of authority.
I flirted with an exploration of Authority as a concept. It appears to derive from a strong sense of self-worth, a clear sense of what is needed, and a kind but firm manner. Discipline, whatever that means, seems to be involved, self-discipline as well as parental discipline. So simple, and somehow, so elusive.
The ‘control issue’ in my home currently comprises my personal failings in the Authority and Self-Discipline departments, my daughter’s extremely strong will, and my philosophical predilection for plurality over dictatorship. My mother’s way doesn’t work, I don’t have a natural aptitude for persuasion, and I do believe that children are not the same as they were. Human beings are evolving all the time, not just physically but emotionally, mentally and spiritually. My daughter, being effectively two generations younger than I am (yes, I’m old enough to be her grandmother), is of a generation whose collective unconscious is radically different from that of my generation. I am not equipped to understand it. That is OK – it’s in the nature of things for children to evolve beyond their parents.
Until she grows up, however, my job is to keep her safe and instil healthy habits, such as self-care in terms of food, sleep and exercise, self-discipline, a work ethic, the ability to get along with others, etc. Hard experience shows me that not all children glide naturally into these habits and skills.
So I need to come to terms with the necessity of controlling my daughter. I have to invent some way to bridge my way of being with hers. This is a work in progress.
It occurs to me that I’ve not grasped the full picture when it comes to ‘control.’ So I’m going to look it up in the dictionary, and I’m going to use Integral Theory (see a future post) to help me grow. I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, I’d like to know who’s in charge at your house, and are you happy about it?