I remember the day very clearly, a few days after we brought my daughter home from the hospital. My firstborn child. She was beautiful and precious, so very loved, and so wanted. And yet, I remember sitting with her in my arms, looking down at her face and panicking. The thought hit me such great force and intensity, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”
It was now my responsibility to raise this tiny new human for the rest of my days. It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought of this many times going into this journey. My husband and I had planned for this baby perfectly, we knew we were ready, we knew this was what we wanted, we were all in.
But as I held her in my arms, just a few days fresh into motherhood, I suddenly realized that it is my job now to take care of this child, to teach this child, to provide for this child, to raise this child into a capable, responsible, intelligent, and kind adult. I would be this child’s mother for all of eternity. And do you know who everyone looks at when a kid messes up in life? – The mom.
Out of Control
You see, the terrifying thing that I suddenly realized in that day was that it was my responsibility to properly raise this child in the way she should go and yet, I have absolutely no control over her. None. Even at just a few days old I realized I can’t make her sleep, I can’t make her stop crying, I can’t make her latch properly so that she could eat. I couldn’t make this tiny human do anything! And yet I was responsible for her entire future.
This is the reality that all of us parents face. The pressure is real. It is not possible to control another human being. Sure, we can overpower someone smaller than us and force them into doing what we want in the moment. We can use threats, intimidation, and manipulation to get someone to do what we want sometimes, but really controlling another human being just simply isn’t possible. And any attempts at controlling another person usually results in a damaged relationship.
You may have seen on the news, a desperate mother, seeing her son throwing rocks at police during a riot. She understood the gravity of the situation. At any moment her child could be arrested, beaten, or killed by the police for his actions. The fear gripped her and in her own words, she “just lost it.” The video has gone viral. A mother beating her 16 year old son, in the face, screaming and cussing at him as she pulls him from the scene.
Many have called her a hero. Some have called her a child abuser. I think we can all see a petrified mother who loves her son and is reacting to a situation that none of us would ever want to be in.
I can see myself in her shoes. How many times have my children done something that made me angry and I’ve reacted with words and actions that I regret? I think we’ve all “lost it” with our children before. And why?
Because at the end of the day, you can’t control another human being, even when that human being is so much a part of you. Even when you love them more than life itself and that love means that every part of your being wants to make sure they are safe, protected, successful, healthy, and happy.
Control Isn’t the Solution
Our biggest fear as parents is that although we feel like we are responsible for how our children end up, we ultimately have no control over how they end up. Just as I couldn’t control my daughter when she was a mere three days old, Toya Graham couldn’t control her son when he chose to take part in a riot.
The first thing to remember is that you are responsible for yourself and your actions alone. You are not responsible for your children and their actions. You are responsible to your children, meaning that you are responsible to take care of your kids, to provide for them, nurture them, teach them, and guide them along the pathways of life. But you will never be responsible for the decisions and the choices that they make. That is and will always be on them. This is a really important distinction. We can’t control another human and therefore we are not responsible for the things that we cannot control.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t want them to make the right decisions, to be successful and happy and healthy. We want these things with all of our hearts. But our desires can only go so far in the life of another human being. What is under our control is what we do. We are responsible for our own actions. And our actions can play a big part in the future actions of our children.
What Can We Do?
This means that we take a responsibility for what we teach our children and how we teach our children.
If our goal is to raise happy, healthy, productive, responsible, and compassionate humans, then our parenting must actually teach these things. Control doesn’t lead to any of those things. In fact, I’d like to suggest that attempts at controlling someone else usually lead to the opposite of happy, productive, responsible, and compassionate.
If we want children who can make their own decisions, stand up for the things that they believe in, and not blindly follow the crowd, we actually have to provide them with opportunities to make their own decisions and develop their own beliefs. We have to be open to allowing them the chance to ask questions, negotiate situations, and learn how to cooperate and compromise with others (including us, as authority figures).
If we want children who are able to peacefully handle conflict we have to show them how to peacefully handle conflict. When we scream, yell, cuss, threaten, and punitively punish them for their actions they learn that conflicts should be handled through emotional outbursts, threats, manipulation, and disrespect. When we respectfully and calmly address their misbehavior, using empathy, compassion, and connection as our most important tools, our children are able to learn valuable strategies for dealing with difficult situations.
It Starts With Me
I can’t control my kids and that’s actually a good thing because I’m not the one responsible for what they do. What I can control is me. Kids learn best through modeling and imitation. Monkey see monkey do. I don’t have to fear my lack of control over my kids, I just need to be the adult that I want my children to become.
When I’m angry, I must learn how to pause, to breathe, and to think. Reacting to a situation is never wise. We must take the time to pause and give ourselves the opportunity to respond in an appropriate manner.
When I’m tired, frustrated, hungry, or need some space to be by myself, I need to learn to verbalize my needs to my children in a way that they understand. Lashing out at them because of my own issues isn’t fair. And it teaches them how to throw a tantrum instead of teaching them the proper communication skills necessary to interact with others.
When I’m disappointed in something my children have done, I must learn to invite them into a solution instead of just blaming and punishing them for the problem. By loving and supporting them through the natural consequences of their decisions my kids learn that I love them unconditionally and I will always be there to support them, but they are responsible for their actions.
It’s Still Scary
The fear is still there. I don’t think it will ever go away.
I don’t know Toya Graham, the mom who caught her child participating in a riot. She might be the very best mother that this world has ever known. A 30-second video clip in the midst of a tragic situation doesn’t tell me much about who she is and how she parents. This post is not meant to judge her parenting. It is meant to reiterate that none of us have any control over our children, and that is a scary fact.
We can do all the right things, be the best example for our kids, and there are still no guarantees that we won’t see our children making terrible choices in their future.
We react to this fear by attempting to control our children, but as we’ve seen, this will always fail us. Instead, we must choose to respond appropriately to this fear. Fear, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. Take the time to feel this fear, acknowledge that it exists, understand why it is there, and then embrace the fear and choose your response.
Will you strive to control your children in the desperate hopes of forcing them into the life you have designed? Or will you be an example to your kids, showing them exactly how to live a good, successful, compassionate, happy life?
Today’s Action Step
Take some time to think about some of the repeated conflicts and hard situations that you experience with your child(ren). Consider your usual reactions. Are you trying to control your child? Are your actions hurting your relationship with your child? Do the actions you take in the middle of the situation teach your child, through your example, how you want them to react during difficult situations? Brainstorm some fresh approaches to your usual conflicts that might help you be a better model of the type of person you hope your child will grow up to be.