I have many discussions with parents that center around the issue of control. The surprising part for many of them is that I emphasize giving up control rather than maintaining control. It seems to me that parenting is a life-long exercise in gradually giving over more and more control to our very precious children. This process can be a very scary, or even painful, endeavor for many parents, especially when it is done either too quickly or too slowly. Many parents wonder, “If I give up control to my child, then how will he learn what is right?” or “Won’t they end up being wild children who are continually in trouble?” Though it is tempting for some parents to believe that gradually giving control over to their children will result in ineffective or poor behavior, the truth is that giving age-appropriate control to our children is actually in their best interest. In reality, giving more control to your children as they mature will help develop a confident, internal moral compass from which they will make better decisions on their own.
Let’s make the distinction between being “in control” and being “controlling.” In his book, "In Defense of Childhood Protecting Kid’s Inner Wildness Chris Mercogliano, describes being “in control” as “establishing age appropriate limits, while at the same time supporting children’s growing sense of autonomy by allowing them to make choices and learn from their mistakes” (pg. 9). Being “in control” is setting very clear limits for children and enforcing those limits consistently. However, if a child is moving within those limits, he is free to be in control of his decisions and behavior. The approach of the “in control” parent allows children to practice making choices that meet their needs or desires, but provides appropriate limitations to that freedom. Alternatively, Mercogliano describes “controlling” as “placing high value on obedience, shepherding children toward specific outcomes, and discouraging verbal give and take” (pg. 9). A controlling parent is not only setting limits, but is active within those limits, making choices and decisions for a child that he could have easily made on his own. A controlling parent who is focused “toward specified outcomes” has his own ideas for the child and is out to make them happen. This parent does not consider the child’s desires, interests, or skills. Instead, this parent’s focus is on meeting his or her own needs.
The key is to gradually give age-appropriate control to our children, which is given in the form of choices. For example, you may ask your young child, “Would you like to wear shorts or blue jeans today?” or “Would you like to drink milk or water?” or “Do you want to read books or play outside?” All of these choices are opportunities for parents to give children control over the moments of their lives without allowing them to be in control of the household. We have all seen the three year old who is clearly in control of the parent-child relationship. Instead of being given choices chosen by the parent, this child is dictating the agenda for the entire household. Giving a young child too much control is not only unhealthy, but is also harmful for future development. On the other hand, giving age-appropriate choices to our children boosts their healthy development.