Control and Compliance

How do I get him to go to sleep when I want?

How do I make her sit still and eat her dinner?

Why won’t she stop doing that?

Why does he take so long to get ready to go?

Do any of these questions sound familiar? I’d hazard a guess that every single parent that’s ever lived has at least once asked each of these questions. And asking the question, really asking, is where the opportunity for learning comes in.

When we try to control our children, we are destined for failure and dissapointment.  This statement is often met with some resistance. Often loud and strident resistance. Let’s let the voice of resistance have a say “Hold on there, I’ve gotten my child to do what I want plenty of times. Don’t go saying I’ll always be dissapointed. I just need to get her to do this other thing that I’m having a hard time with. I just want a technique to get her to do what I want. After all, I’m the parent and what I say should be law.  When she disagrees with me, she’s being disrespectful. She should do what I say, immediately, without any conversation or argument.”

Then let’s look at these statements one at a time to see if we can tease a little light into them.

“Hold on there.” The voice of resistance doesn’t even like us to ask questions about discipline and control. Even starting the conversation can be hard when we meet resistance, our own or anothers, that say ‘don’t even go there’. This is a great time to mentally and emotionally hold onto yourself and ask the questions anyway.

“I’ve gotten my child to do what I want plenty of times.” Actually looking at how often our rules and commands are obeyed can be an enlightening experience, but if it is true that your child does what they are told ‘plenty of times’ then the next question becomes: at what cost? And is having an obiedient child the most important thing? My argument here is that it can make life easier in the moment, it can make me feel powerful and right, and it can seem like I’m being a good parent when my daughter obeys me. I don’t like to take the time to explain myself, to help her understand my point of view, or to take her needs into account when we’re already late to get somewhere and I’m tired and I feel like I’ve already done those things today. Can’t she just do what she’s told? And sometimes she does, but sometimes she doesn’t. Then I need to ask myself, is getting to the playdate, the swim lesson, the doctor’s appointment, or whatever so important that I can’t take the time to treat her with respect?

Kids are people too. All people like and deserve respect. All people respond better to being respected than to being treated like commodities or things.

“Don’t go saying I’ll always be disappointed” No one likes to believe they aren’t going to get what they want. Even grown-ups. Especially parents. Sometimes we feel like our identity and sense-of-self is tied into how well our children behave. And if they aren’t behaving we must be one of those permissive parents whose children run all over the place and make life hard for everyone.

“I just need to get her to do this other thing I’m having a hard time with.” Granted, there are times when children (and grown-ups for that matter) need to just do what they are told. But those situations are pretty much not the normal. When a firetruck comes up behind your car with it’s lights flashing, you don’t want to get out and ask where they are going and evaluate for yourself if you think that’s a good use of the time, energy, and money it takes to move the firetruck and crew around the town. These might be good questions, but it’s not the time for them. When the firetruck comes up behind you, you move your car out of the way and let it pass. Likewise, when we have a real emergency, it’s time for our kids to obey and do what they are told. Questions can wait until later. The problem is, most of us live our lives in a state of rush, hurry-up, and ‘we’re already late’. When this is how we’re operating, every request can seem like it needs to be met with compliance RIGHT NOW with no room for discussion or argument. So when do our children learn how to evaluate options for themselves? When do they get to exercise their own judgement? When do we allow them to start strengthening their muscles of discipline, discernment, and self-control?

“I just need a technique to get her to do what I want” This usually means a bribe or a punishment. We don’t like to think of ‘rewards’ as bribes, but how else do you really interpret “Get in the car now without fussing and I’ll get you an ice cream later?” Sounds like a bribe to me. These can work great for short term fixes. Afterall, little Gwen did just get in the car so it worked, right? Yes and no. Again, if short term compliance is all we’re after, then bribes and punishments seem to work. However, if what we are after is to raise thinking, caring human beings then bribes and punishments fall woefully short of the mark.

“After all, I’m the parent and what I say should be law.” We have a lot of these thoughts and beliefs in our psyches. It’s useful to get some professional help to take a look at the beliefs we have that we might not even know about or be able to articulate. Things that ‘everyone knows’ or ‘it’s just done that way’ are good things to take a look at and see where those beliefs came from and if they truly serve you. To get you started, can you think of anytime you said something that wasn’t exactly what you meant or completely true? Have you ever backtracked on an offer or a statement? Most of us aren’t so good at being absolutely honest and having perfect follow-through on everything we say. Asking our word to be law, might be more than we’re up to.

“When she disagrees with me, she’s being disrespectful. She should do what I say, immediately, without any conversation or argument.” You can guess that I’m not going to agree with this one either. My husband and I recently had a conversation about this one. He wanted me to back him up when he told the girls to do or not do something. He thought it was important that we have a united parental front and that the girls learn that what he said was what we were going to do no questions asked. I asked to talk with him about this in private. Key – If you’re going to question something your spouse really believes in, give both of you the benefit of doing it in private or with qualified support but not in front of the kids or in-laws, ok? I said that I thought it was very important for the girls to be able to question what they were being told to do. Especially in this age where we hear scary reports about the number of children that are raped or otherwise abused, having a healthy sense of self and the ability to ask questions and say no might not just be a good idea. They could save my daughters from a terrifying and life altering experience. Another reason is that my husband and I are not always in a great, centered place when we ‘lay down the law’. Sometimes, perhaps often, when we get into this sort of controlling framework, we are feeling short on getting one or more of our needs met. Then we usually tell the children ‘no’ because we perceive ourselves as not having enough to offer. “Don’t ask for more. No NO NO!” Is more what we are saying than some reasonable request. So for our children to question if we really mean it is valid. Often, when we cool off or when we’ve gotten more of our own needs met, we are able to hear the needs our children are trying to meet and help them meet them rather than just stuffing their feelings and needs.