Rethinking Control, Part 1: Recognizing What You Can and Can’t Control

The following is the first part of a series of articles all about taking a fresh look at control, particularly when it comes to raising children. We hope this content is beneficial for you and that you’ll stay tuned for more.

If you read almost any parenting book, one word that will almost undoubtedly get brought up is control. Often, these books discuss control as it relates to the parental need to take back control from the child, who has somehow managed to snatch it away like a thief in the night. As parents, we are told that we must keep our children under control, and we can easily do that by implementing this specific prescription of limits and consequences, as well as a certain degree of mental fortitude and emotional distance.

As a youth mental health case manager, I harped on the importance of these concepts with the parents I worked with, all but promising that if they did this, this, and this, then their little demon child would miraculously transform into a harp-strumming cherub.

And then I brought home my first foster child, a sweet and shy thirteen-year-old boy who could not be forced to do a single thing. Not homework, not bedtime, not getting up in the morning, not chores, not anything he didn’t want to do.

No problem, I thought. I know just what to do!

Confident in my abilities, I went about setting limits and linking consequences to behaviors so that way I could get this kid “under control.” Just a few weeks with my impeccable parenting skills, I figured, and this would be the most compliant, well-rested, academically-successful, and punctual kid on the face of the earth.

Well, it’s been a while since then. That foster child is now my adopted son whom I love more than I ever thought possible, and yet I still don’t have him “under control.” In fact, his reactions to my attempts at setting limits and implementing consequences made it clear to me just how little control I ever had to begin with.

A few months ago, everything felt like it was spiraling completely out of my control. I spent a few mostly sleepless weeks wracking my brain to come up with any possible way I could wrest control away from my son, but what I discovered was that the more I tried to grapple for control, the less control I actually had. Therefore, I knew it was time to rethink control. Here’s what I discovered.

Control is mostly an illusion. When we think we have control in a situation, often we confuse that with influence, which, while somewhat similar, is not the same thing as control. Influence is the ability to affect someone’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but it is not the ability to completely control someone’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Even if the influence is particularly strong, the one being influenced still has the capacity and the responsibility to make his/her own decisions.

One of the most common forms that influence takes is the ability to inflict punishment. For instance, if someone puts a gun to your head and commands you to recite the alphabet or else they’ll shoot you, it may feel as if they’re in control of you, but they’re not. All they have is the ability to put a hole in your head if you don’t do what they want; you’re still in control of whether or not you recite the alphabet.

There are certainly less extreme forms of influence by threat of punishment. Our speed while driving is influenced by the potential for a ticket. Our personal conduct in social situations is influenced by the risk of ridicule or rejection. Our work performance is influenced by the possibility of getting fired. But in no way does anyone actually control us in any of these situations; we have complete autonomy.

In fact, when we take the time to carefully consider the things we truly can control, we’ll find that we can only really control our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. No one can make us think, feel, or behave in any particular way. Certainly, they can exert a great deal of influence which we may perceive as control, but they have no actual control over us.

We don’t normally think or speak like this, however. Instead, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we prefer to blame other people for our choices, sometimes even going so far as to remove our agency from the situation entirely.

Some days I come into the office and tell Dave about whatever ridiculousness occurred at my house the previous night, and I’ll often say something about my son like, “He makes me so mad!” But that’s not really what happened. My son didn’t make me do anything. He did something that influenced me in a certain way, but I chose to get mad about it.

When we blame others for the way they “make” us feel or the things they “make” us do, we give up the control that is rightfully ours. No wonder so many of us feel like we have no control in our lives. We try to give it away anytime it isn’t convenient or doesn’t make us feel good.

If we want to regain the sense of control over our own lives, then taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is step one. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I should probably stop writing until I’ve got this figured out.

Nevertheless, since that might admittedly take a bit of time, I press on.

Recognizing that only we are in control of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors leads naturally into another very important truth: only the individual is in control of his/her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. To put it in terminology tailor-made for parents: only your child is in control of his/her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

You are not in control of your child, and you cannot control your child. Sure, you may be able to sit on her or sneak melatonin into his Gatorade, and you may even be able to influence your child’s decisions through empowering messages or potential consequences, but you absolutely cannot control him/her.

This is an unfortunate reality for many parents, but it is actually quite freeing. The fact that we can’t control our children means that it isn’t our responsibility to do so.

I’m not saying that we’re no longer responsible for our children. We are. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t care about the decisions our children make. We should.

What I’m saying, though, is that we cannot control our children–what they say, what they do, what they eat, what they wear, when/if they sleep, who their friends are, how much effort they put into their schoolwork, what their hobbies are, who they want to become, how they treat others, what sports or instruments they play, which of our values they uphold, etc.

While it can be jarring and unnerving to realize that we can’t control our children and shouldn’t try, this is actually a good thing. If our children grow up knowing that they are in control of themselves and their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, then they’re more likely to become unique, responsible, awe-inspiring, and world-changing adults, rather than carbon copies of the people we wish we were.

That’s where I’m going to leave things for today. Over the next few weeks, I’ll write more about control, particularly how we can claim and use our control responsibly and impactfully, and also how we can help our kids develop their own sense of control.

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