By David Paltin, PhD
Picture yourself driving down the road, your favorite music coming from the radio, each highway mile moving you further away from your troubles, and then, from the backseat a howl of pain, “He hit me,” your child’s voice pops your balloon of peace with a cry like an ice pick. “She’s making those noises again,” comes the reply. A thought enters your head, “If they only had a “kid control” button in this car instead of a cruise control, I would have paid double the price.” Indeed, having more control might allow you to drive from point A to point B without a brawl from the booster seats, and control would also let you finish a phone call without interruption, or get your sixth grader to the homework table in less than a half-hour. If control is that important a part of parenting, why can’t we somehow find more of it? In this article, we look at the reasons why control is so challenging and elusive in most parenting situations, and approaches that can lead to a greater degree of control.
First, let’s recognize that parents might be evenly divided when the word control is mentioned. Around half of us immediately feel a sense of suffocation or a feeling that an overcontrolled child becomes intolerant of themselves and others. We think of the first grade teacher that hands out only brown, green, and blue crayons during nature drawing class because those are the only colors she can see in nature. In this view, control seems like a repressive stick. The other half of us might wonder why other parents can’t see where the lack of child control has brought us as a society. In this view, the key to adult self-control is through appropriate control applied by parents; its a way of helping children understand that the world is filled with real consequences, and happiness comes from recognizing and avoiding those consequences. The good news is that both sides are right, and of course, the bad news is that both sides are wrong.
Most of the misunderstanding comes from our trouble remembering 1) that we cannot control children, we can only control situations and 2) that relationship factors are as important as rewards and punishments in how children respond to control.
More about that later, let’s look at what parenting researchers tell us about the issue. The most credible research in this area comes from Baumrind’s studies of parenting style (1991), and additional research by Maccoby and Martin (1983). According to Baumrind, there are three basic parenting styles that lead to predictable outcomes:
1) Authoritarian Style - These parents follow the “because I said so” rule, and place a premium on obedience. They are strict in enforcing rules, and focus on punishment as the most effective consequence. The child’s feelings are secondary to maintaining authority and obedience in the home. Children of authoritarian parents, indeed, become “good” adults that know how to obey, but they tend to lack social competence and overall happiness.
2) Authoritative Style – These parents set rules and expectations just like authoritarian parents, but are more responsive to the child’s reactions and feelings. Goals and rules are presented in a positive light, rather than as standards that should cause kids to tremble. Authoritarian parents balance negative conseqeuences with positive discipline, and can offer forgiveness when it is appropriate. Children of authoritative parents earn respect from their children that translates into later measures of happiness, capability, and work success.
3. Permissive Indulgent Style - These parents might view it as limiting to set expectations and rules on children. They might feel that children will naturally choose good behavior over bad when left on their own. In truth, permissive parents can sometimes fear conflict with their children and seek ”friend” status rather than deal with the risk of battling with an angry child. Not surprisingly, children who are raised in this style struggle with self-control and have the poorest outcome in measures of adult functioning.
Now, remember the two factors that help set the stage for effective parent control? That was the part about controlling situations, and relationships as important as rewards or punishments. On the surface, it looks like Authoritarian parents have the most parental control. After all, their kids don’t talk back, don’t challenge authority, and don’t punch each other in the arm at the dinner table. Rigidly authoritarian parents often mistake over control of children as control over the situation. The problem with this mechanism of control is that it often translates into fear of authority as kids enter adulthood rather than a true sense of internal, self-control. Another problem is that the ratio of negative to positive consequences is often about 4 to 1, meaning children gain much more experience in avoiding punishment than they spend time striving for positive consequences. On the other end of the spectrum, highly Permissive-Indulgent parents often don’t have skill in using situation-control tools such as an authoritative voice, controlling praise and attention, or planning ahead to control situational problems. Permissive parents find themselves throwing up their hands and feeling defeated because it seems like gaining control is a lost battle. And when the situation starts to fail for either authoritarian parents or permissive parents, they often find themselves falling back on yelling as a means of control, doling out extreme consequences like 6-month-long time outs, or using power threats (like, “wait till we’re not in public and you’ll see what you get for this behavior”).
Authoritative parents seem to be the most skilled at controlling situations in order to develop kid controls, and also know how to effectively use both postive and negative relationship consequences to get the outcome they are looking for. What do Authoritative parents do differently:
1) They recognize that the situation is like steering a boat on water much more than steering a car on land, that is, kids will move in the direction of situational control over time if enough situational elements are applied, but might not change immediately.
2) Authoritative parents know that relationship tools such as providing positive attention and praise as well as corrective messages and negative consequences are more effective than other kinds of rewards and punishments such as spanking or passively trying to reason with an agitated, angry child. Authoritative parents also seem to recognize that parental respect, that thing we all wish we had more of from our children, is created by giving meaningful and achievable behavioral challenges to children balanced by clear and honest feedback and negative consequences when a bad behavioral choice is made. The main point that Authoritative parents get and that we need to remember is that control will happen over time if we take time to plan out and consistently try out new tools when our old efforts do not work.
In this way of seeing things, we don’t have to think of control as such a negative thing, perhaps like the way it was applied in our own childhoods, and we can redefine what it means in relation to our own kids. Lets apply some of these concepts to these very real and very common situations where control becomes a primary issue:
Back Seat Back-and-Forth – What is it about the back seats of the minivan that brings out the “inner irritator” in children? There are two reasons that this situation tends to rob us of situational control. First, time is usually not on your side. Given the pressure to get to the destination, it is understandable that we tell ourselves, “If I can only make it to where I’m going, I’ll be able to stop the arguing then.” Second, confining a child to a small space naturally triggers arguments over territory and attention. To reduce battles in the bucket-seats, try offering complements and positive attention to the one who is behaving the best (a tool we call “differential rewards for positive behavior), even if it’s only for a few moments of good behavior. It’s also helpful to give children a job to do while they are stuck in the back seat. Any job will do, even if it’s counting exits on the highway until you reach yours. Bring a street map, mark your starting and ending points with stars, and see if they can spot any of the streets mentioned along the way.
More Kids = More Noise – This sounds like an old proverb, “One parent can never catch two children running in opposite directions.” Children wear away at situational controls by moving quickly, doing things over and over, and by doing many negative behaviors in a short period of time. The more kids in the picture, the situation can quickly double or triple in its intensity. Instead of being worn down both in energy and authority by “putting out every fire” that flares up, choose only one or two under-controlled behaviors to work on at a time. For example, only work on running away from a parent in the grocery store or a child going into a brother or sister’s room to start a fight, but don’t try to change five other behaviors at the same time. The greatest power you have when you are outnumbered by children (even if it is just by 2 kids) is your greater ability to plan ahead. Try taking some time away from the situation and mapping out strategies to try the next time, like planning an extra ten minutes into the trip to the store that can be used to take kids to the side of the store to wait until their behavior is back in control, or controlling the TV situation by patiently holding the actual plug to the device in the air until the bickering stops.
With some of these ideas in mind, any parent can reset the balance of control in their household as long as they are willing to take a step back, look in the mirror at their own feelings about control, and try to adjust where adjustments are needed.