Rethinking Control, Part 4: Helping Your Child Develop Their Internal Sense of Control

So far in this series on rethinking control, we’ve established that you are in complete control of yourself…and not a whole lot else. The inverse of this relatively unfortunate reality is also true: you are not in control of other people, including and especially your children.

But for whatever reason, we have this expectation that we should be able to control our children’s behavior, and that other people should be able to control their children as well. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been in Walmart and a small child is screaming its stupid idiot head off and I think to myself, “That parent really needs to control their child.”

The idea that you can control a child’s behavior is a myth.

Think back to the times when you’ve tried to control your child’s behavior. If your son or daughter is anything like mine, then most likely these attempts have been futile, if not downright disastrous. If you’ve managed to be successful, I would maintain that you didn’t actually control your child, even if it seems that way. Rather, either you exerted some powerful influence or your child is powerfully receptive to your influence. In any case, I don’t believe you are able to control your children. Sorry for being redundant, but I feel like it was worth saying again.

So if you’re buying what I’m selling (for free), that we can’t actually control our children, what are we as parents to do? Should we just let our kids do anything they feel like doing with no intervention whatsoever?

Well, no. We should let our behavior be a good example for the kind of adults we’d like our children to become someday, and we should do what we can to influence their behavior positively, such as teaching skills and allowing consequences.

On top of those things, it is our responsibility as parents to help our kids develop their own internal sense of control.

The reality is that our kids can basically do whatever they want. Of course, there are limits to this. They can’t grow wings and fly and they can’t become president (yet) and they can’t steal your car if you lock the keys in a lockbox and hide it in a place they’ll never be able to find. But for the most part, whether we like it or not, our kids are free to do as they please. There’s no use saying things like, “You will not speak like that in this house, young lady!” because, well, she just did.

Fortunately, the reason human society hasn’t devolved into utterly violent chaos is simple: consequences. There are legal consequences: you’re free to murder if you want, but you have to deal with the legal consequences. There are also social consequences: if you go around calling everyone you meet a butthole, you probably won’t have an overabundance of friends. The goal of consequences is not to punish, but rather to regulate and shape the behavior of people who are free to do anything they want to do.

There are consequences for every decision your child makes, whether positive or negative, whether natural or imposed. But ultimately they have control of what they choose to do. The job of a parent, I believe, is not to force our kids to make good decisions, but rather to help them strengthen their good-decision-muscle.

A lot of parents understand that they can’t actually control their kids, but they try their best to keep that knowledge away from their children. I totally get this impulse, but I think it’s a mistake. It even seems a bit manipulative. Plus, allowing our children to believe that we control them doesn’t do anything to set them up for success in the future.

Most likely all of our goals for our children involve them becoming independent in some capacity. Simply put, I don’t want my son to still live in my house when he’s forty. But if my son is only used to my voice telling him what to do, what will happen when he’s out on his own? How will he learn to make his own decisions if I don’t help him develop that skill?

The various life skills we have (or should have) can be compared to the muscles in our bodies. You wouldn’t expect someone who has never lifted weights before to win a power-lifting competition, just like you wouldn’t expect a child who’s never exercised his good-decision-muscle to make good decisions.

However, it’s difficult to work out a muscle if you don’t know exists. Therefore, if we don’t teach our kids that they have a good-decision-muscle that needs strengthening, we shouldn’t be surprised when they struggle to make positive choices independently.

I often explain to my son, “Look, dude, you can do whatever you want. I can’t force you to do anything, and neither can anyone else. You’re in control of you. Of course, there are consequences for every choice you make. If you make a good decision, you’ll have positive consequences. If you make a bad decision, you’ll have negative consequences. But ultimately, it’s all up to you, man. You’ve got the power.”

Admittedly, that’s a scary conversation to have, because at this point I don’t trust my child to make the most fantastic decisions in the world. However, having this conversation opens up further conversations about decision-making that allow my son to think through the decisions he makes, why he makes them, and how those decisions are working out for him.

Here are some questions you can ask your child to engage them in strengthening that good-decision-muscle:

  • What were your thoughts when you made that decision?
  • Would you make that decision again if you had the chance?
  • How is this decision helping you reach your goals in life?
  • How do you think that decision affected the other people involved?
  • What were you hoping the outcome of that decision would be?
  • What do you think that decision says about the person you want to become?

Obviously, these questions might be too difficult for a younger or lower functioning child, but the point is to help your children understand the control they have over their own behaviors and become aware of how they make their decisions. Awareness is an important first step in developing any skill.

Kids are undoubtedly going to make mistakes, and that’s actually a very good thing because that’s how they learn. If you never let your child make a mistake while they’re in your home, odds are they won’t have the decision-making skills necessary to thrive in the adult world once they move out. But making mistakes and dealing with the resulting natural consequences is how we all learn. However, if you never acknowledge and nurture the control your child already has, then they’re less likely to have the opportunity to learn important lessons from their mistakes.

Here are some tips for helping your child develop their own sense of control:

Maintain your relationship first and foremost.

Allowing your child to make their own choices and deal with the consequences requires a certain amount of emotional detachment from the situation, but that doesn’t mean that you should emotionally detach from your child. While you’re not trying to control your child anymore, you still want to influence them as much as possible. The most powerful influence comes from positive, caring relationships, and even if it sounds unlikely, I believe that parents absolutely have the most potential to influence their children’s decisions. Be sure you do everything in your control to keep this relationship positive and caring, so that way you can help (not force) your child to make the best decisions for their life.

Valuing your relationship above all else also means that, even when your child makes bad decisions, you should still do whatever you can to make this relationship as healthy and nurturing as possible. Withdrawing attention and affection is a horrible consequence to impose on anyone, especially on children who have endured childhood trauma and may be particularly sensitive to anything that stinks of rejection or abandonment.

It’s important to allow your child to experience the natural consequences of their poor decisions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with them. After all, if a consequence sucks, then it sucks. It’s totally okay for parents to empathize with their kids and acknowledge that the consequence does, in fact, suck.

Develop their opinion of themselves.

A therapist once asked me, “Could I convince you to stop praising your son?” This question caught me by surprise, and I confidently told him that no, he could not. However, he went on to explain that it’s vital for children to feel good about who they are and to be able to generate that good feeling by themselves, no matter what anyone else thinks or who’s around to praise them.

It’s great to tell our kids that we’re proud of them, but it’s even more important that they feel proud of themselves. There won’t always be someone around to praise them for their good decisions or their hard work. If they’re not able to feel pride in themselves independently of others’ opinion, then they’re unlikely to make good decisions or work hard unless there’s someone there to pat them on the back. I don’t think any parent wants this for their child.

Instead of saying, “You did a great job”, try saying, “I bet you feel like you did a great job.” Instead of saying, “I’m proud of you,” try saying, “I bet you feel proud of yourself.” This way you can still give them praise (albeit indirectly), but you’re phrasing it from their perspective, thus developing that inner voice of satisfaction with themselves. This, I believe, is how integrity is formed.

Allow natural consequences and avoid imposed consequences.

There’s a big difference between natural consequences and imposed consequences.

Imposed consequences are punishments like spanking or grounding, something a parent willfully does to their child that doesn’t naturally follow from the behavior and isn’t usually logically connected to it. I like to refer to these consequences as “parental revenge” because usually they are imposed because a parent feels like their child must endure some sort of discomfort as a result of their inappropriate behavior.

On the other hand, natural consequences are the things that naturally happen as a result of a decision. For instance, if a child pokes his dad in the eye and the dad can’t see for the next two days because he has a corneal abrasion, then the natural consequence is that the child can’t play catch with his dad for those two days. Sometimes natural consequences from a parent are whatever imposed consequences a system such as a school or law enforcement might impose. If a child doesn’t get up for school, then the natural consequence is that he will have detention.

Here’s another way to describe the difference: A natural consequence of watching the hit Netflix original series Bojack Horseman is hours of laughter, fun, and joy. This makes sense. An imposed consequence for watching Bojack Horseman would be taking away soda privileges as punishment. This does not make sense.

In my experience, imposed consequences aren’t particularly effective, because usually they’re a bit nonsensical. For example, “You’re grounded from your Xbox for a week because you didn’t clean your room.” This imposed consequence (grounding from the Xbox) doesn’t logically follow from the behavior (failure to clean the room), and your kid’s likely to learn diddly-squat from the experience, except that you’re a vengeful parent.

Natural consequences are effective because they are just that: natural. They are the things that happen as a result of any given choice. Punching your best friend in the face might lose you a best friend, throwing your guitar at the wall might lose you a guitar, and skipping baseball practice might lose you a spot on the team. Natural consequences teach that you can make whatever choice you want, but you can’t control what happens to you as a result.

A lot of parents want to protect their children from the natural consequences of their children’s decisions, so they do things like call the school to excuse their child’s tardy when the tardy was actually unexcused. Don’t do this. Let the child learn that there are natural consequences for their actions, empathize with them, and help them learn how to act differently in the future.

Check back next week for the grand finale of “Rethinking Control”!

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