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Trying to Control Our Kids

imgresYou’ve probably heard this said countless times already, but it is true: Raising children can be one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors we can ever undertake. Perhaps a slight asterisk here would be to clarify that raising kids to be happy, well-adjusted, productive adults is challenging. I guess one could say that it is much easier to be an ineffective parent! Effective parenting requires our love, time, attention, and effort. As parents, we want to guide our children in a positive direction. Ironically, trying to control our kids can often backfire. As the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The way in which technology is intertwined into our society creates unique challenges for parents. As we all have experienced, the constant allure of technology is impossible to ignore. There’s no way to cut it out, and it is only becoming more intertwined into our lives. As parents, it is difficult enough to manage the way technology pulls on us. At least in theory, as adults we have developed a greater level of self-control and self-regulation with regard to our technology use than our kids. So, as parents, what is the best way to help our children put some boundaries around their technology use since our kids probably do not have the skills to regulate themselves effectively?

The Problems with Relying on External Control as Parents

With a grateful nod to Dr. William Glasser in his work in this area, it is helpful to think of our role as parents in terms of influence versus control. We can influence our children (and other people) but not really control them. Sure, there are times that we can control our kids through coaxing, bribes, threats, punishment, and other coercive strategies, but there are a few fundamental problems with using such controlling approaches.

  1. People, particularly our kids, do not like to be controlled. We all have a fundamental needs for power and freedom. When others try to limit our freedom, we have a strong inclination to resist external control and reinstate our liberty and power. As parents, we notice this in our kids all the time. They often resist what we are trying to get them to do – even when we right! Kids, especially teens, are infamous for “cutting off the nose to spite the face.” For example, if parents tell their teen daughter, “You can date anyone you want to at school EXCEPT that guy.” Who does she want date now? THAT guy! There’s even a term for this in the social sciences called psychological reactance when a person perceives that their behavioral freedom is being limited, he or she will be motivated to act in ways to re-establish their freedom.
  2. If we use many controlling strategies as parents to get our kids to “behave,” what happens when we are not able to exert these controls? Often kids will go a little bananas (or a lot!) when they finally have a taste of freedom from these parental controls. You might have seen some of these kids go completely overboard in college because they didn’t know how to use their freedom responsibly…or maybe you were even one of these kids! If you have heard of “preacher kid syndrome,” you know what we are talking about. Sometimes the wildest kids are the ones who have the most to rebel against.
  3. As parents, one of our main jobs is to help children make “good” choices – how to use freedom in a responsible way. A developmental task of children is to learn to exercise this freedom responsibly. If we use too many controlling measures as parents, we deny our children the opportunity to learn to develop this skill – because we are making all of the decisions for them.

Now, I am not advocating that we parents stand back and let our kids do whatever they want. We do need to set limits as parents. Our kids need a number of limits to feel safe and to keep them safe. However, we want to be able to teach and guide our kids as best we can without being overly controlling or coercive. When we do want to guide our children OR set firm limits, how can we get the best results? I will cover this in my next blog, so please stay tuned!

1 Comment

  1. Tom

    Great article! Having raised three daughters, now 23, 21 and 19, I can attest to the ineffectiveness of external control parenting! Today, not even purple hair, piercings, or heaven forbid, tatoos keep me from having a relationship with my daughters. Secretly, I hope they are finished with the tatoos! 🙂

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