Losing Control

I have three sons, aged ten, seven and three, and I’ve become aware recently of how much I want to control them. I thought I was easy-going and open-minded, but the truth is that I want them to do things my way! What is going on? I feel stuck.

We all learn our parenting styles as we respond to what we grew up with. If we had rigid, controlling parents, we may find ourselves behaving like them, feeling anxious if everything is not under our control. Or we may find ourselves going to the other extreme and allowing our children to run our lives, as we try not to repeat our grandparents’ mistakes. If our parents were very permissive, we may be the same way, or we may become overly controlling in order to avoid our present family becoming as chaotic as our family of origin. The ideal is a family in which every member has at least some control over all the things in his or her life which she or he is mature enough to control.

Sharing a home with other people isn’t easy. When four or five people (some of them young and egocentric) share the same space, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with noise, clutter, and chaos. Your controlling behavior may be coming from your need to make order out of chaos, and to feel some control over your own life. Your ideal of not forcing your sons to do things your way is admirable, but this has to be a mutual situation : you shouldn’t have to do everything the way they want, either. The guideline for human relationships is the Golden Rule : “Treat others the way you would like them to treat you.” This applies to both parents and children, and parents have to teach it to children. A child’s version of the Golden Rule is “Your freedom to swing your arm ends where somebody else’s body begins.”

Because children are (naturally and rightfully) egocentric, they will override our needs in favour of their own if we permit them to do so. Children need to develop their sense of control over their own lives within a basic structure set down by their parents. This structure sets limits or boundaries around each person, not permitting others to infringe on their rights. Once the limits are set, then empathy can be encouraged, becoming aware of others’ needs and feelings, and caring for other family members. Children are not born knowing about others’ needs or about boundaries, so the parents have to teach these things, by example and by rules. Although the parents are primarily in charge, the children need to feel it is their home as much as their parents’ home – after all, it is the only home they have! The following are some practical guidelines :

Private Space and Property : In a family, especially with several members, it’s important to define boundaries, to outline which objects (toys, clothes, food, etc.) and which parts of the house belong to whom. Each person should have a private space, usually his or her bedroom (or half of a bedroom); within this space they should be in charge of decoration and cleanup, though younger ones need to be taught and helped. Each child and adult should have some property which is theirs alone, and which they do not have to share with siblings or guests. Others’ respect for their property helps them develop respect for others’ property.

Shared Space and Property : Each person should also be able to contribute to the shared space. When I was a child, our neighbours had a perfectly decorated house, and ours was a mess – but the whole neighborhood played in our house because it was a home for children, not a showpiece for adults. There will be time for that when your kids have grown and flown. As an adult, I gave up asking my kids to move their stuff into their rooms when I realized they were “marking out their territory” by leaving books and shoes around, stating through their behavior that the common areas of the house were theirs as well as mine. I just asked them to keep their things in neat piles. They also liked to study on the dining room table rather than in their rooms, and I learned to accept this as a need to bring their activities into the centre of the family rather than be pushed away. If everyone contributes to the shared space, everyone can also help clean it up.

Time : People should all have some control over their own time, but it’s up to the parents to provide a basic structure for this. For example, schoolwork and chores are necessary, but parents need to allow children flexibility regarding when these are done. Parents must set limits on how much TV and which shows kids are permitted to watch, but within these limits kids should be able to make their own selections. And a parent doesn’t walk in in the middle of a show and tell them to take out the garbage. Parents need some child-free time, usually in the later evening, and kids need to be taught to respect this.

Tasks : Adults need to define for children a manageable but acceptable level of doing household tasks. Kids don’t automatically know how to wash dishes or mow lawns; they need to be taught. It’s okay to require that your child do an adequate job. Children should be given jobs which they’re old enough to do well. For example, your 3-year-old isn’t yet able to organize his toys; “cleaning up” for him is putting most of his toys in one box, not sorting them. If kids’ tasks are within their capacity, and they have been taught the basics, they then need to have room for creativity. The way they organize the toys in their room, and the pattern they make with the lawnmower, should be up to them. Each time you try to tell a child how to do something, ask yourself whether you are teaching your child how (which is necessary) or just controlling, which takes away the child’s freedom and autonomy.