If you can’t control your children

If you haven’t heard this, chances are you’ve thought something like it.

If you can’t control your children…

…you shouldn’t bring them in the first place.
…you should take them out of here.
…you’re going to have to leave.

As parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to compel our kids to act appropriately. We reason; we model; we threaten; we offer rewards; we punish. The method generally changes with the situation, but the goal is the same: to get them to do what we want.

When they’re young, they don’t have any situational context and we need to get them there quickly. At age two, your daughter isn’t able to understand the reason why she can’t touch the pretty fire, and when she stretches her hand toward it, you don’t have time to give her one. You grab it away and shout NO! so loud she startles and cries. Do that enough times, and she figures that doing this is a bad idea, at least around Mom.

As our kids get older, the world revolves around why. We explain all day and night, each answer forming inroads to the next question. We want them to understand so they can make good choices for themselves.Teaching can be exhausting, so occasionally we throw up our hands and wail Because I said so! If that’s not enough, there’s always the time-out chair or a swat to help teach them a lesson.

Eventually the whys fade. We teach them less with force or words and know they’re watching our every move. We should probably explain more along the way, but honestly we kind of forget we need to. We just carry on, thinking we’re all that. We forget they see our mistakes, too, and we certainly don’t explain those, or what we could have done better. When they screw up, we again revert to instinct. I SAID no! and we take away something that hurts: their phone, the car, their freedom.

Still, they seem so grown up and insightful. When it’s time for them to launch, we help them move into their apartments or dorm rooms and wave goodbye teary-eyed and smiling. They’ve got this, we think as we pat ourselves on the back.

Then come the bad choices: the partying, the boyfriend we don’t like, the job we think isn’t right, the credit card bills, the color of their hair. We try reasoning, but it doesn’t help. She doesn’t see the problem. Or she’s determined to defy you. Or she listens and does it anyway. So we resort to the Plan B that has always worked: we punish. We take away something important. If we can’t find a thing to withhold, the only remaining possibility is a piece of ourselves.Sometimes we even combine the two.

We make the distribution of our love or approval or support contingent on their behavior. Except there’s one problem: the bad choice isn’t ours anymore. It’s theirs.

Once we had what seemed like all the time in the world to teach them everything we thought they needed to know. Even if we think we accomplished it, even if they were model students, they are not us. They are unique, right down to their DNA. We can’t–and shouldn’t–expect them to make every choice our way. They may not want the same things. They certainly don’t think the same things. Besides that, “our” way assumes we know everything. We might be wrong sometimes.

The ultimate goal of raising our children should not be to raise them to adulthood only to behave “appropriately” when we’re done. Instead, we should use our time to equip them with the tools they need to make decisions for themselves, and whether those decisions are good or bad, to accept the consequences that follow. If their decision-making process seems flawed, maybe that’s our fault.

I’m not saying our adult kids won’t continue to learn or that we can’t help guide them along the way. They will and we can. What I am saying is that teaching our children in order to control them never works in the long run. Everyone loses and eventually, we might lose them.

If you can’t control your children, maybe it’s time to stop trying.


Seth Godin posted something similar this week, but of course, his version is more succinct. Read it here: https://seths.blog/2022/04/two-things-we-say-to-kids/

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