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The Cycle of Control

Written by Teresa Graham Brett, JD   
Thursday, 01 December 2011 00:00

When our children are born, they are wholly dependent on us for survival. We are socialized to believe that we know what is best for our children, and it is our responsibility in turn to socialize them to become responsible, productive adults.

Their dependency on us, and this socialization, allows us to easily believe that we should control their lives in order to ensure they turn out “right.” We do this in both overt and covert ways.

Even if we nursed or fed our babies on demand in their infancy, as our children grow we might decide that they should eat on a schedule, and eat certain foods. We might determine what they eat by limiting what we bring in the house (covert control). Or we might determine what they eat by forcing them to eat everything on their plates before they are allowed to have desert or a treat (overt control).

We convince ourselves that we are doing right by our children by making decisions for them. Of course our children are unable to decide when and what to eat. They cannot decide what to watch on television, nor which video games to play. They cannot decide what time to go to sleep. We are convinced that because we have lived longer and have paid our dues, it is our responsibility to make all of their decisions for them.

By making all those decisions, we are denying their experiences, and depriving them of their right to self-determination. We treat them with disrespect and disregard. In the history of our society, and to this day, we have denied groups of people the right to self-determination by infantilizing them or labeling them as savages who need to be civilized. I often hear of the need to “tame” or “civilize” children in order to make them acceptable to adult society.


Respecting Their Choices

Our children do need our support, and they are dependent. Does this dependence give us the right to control their lives? If a partner in a relationship stays home and does not bring in income, does this give the bread-winning partner the right to determine how all money is spent? Does the financial dependence of one partner mean that the other partner has total control?

We create the belief that because children are young and do not have our experiences, they cannot make the right kinds of decisions—and so we control their choices. They naturally push back against this control, and this rebellion reinforces our beliefs that they do not have the ability to manage their own lives. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-perpetuating cycle.

The cycle of control has lifelong consequences. Even as adults, we still live with the effects of the control adults exercised over us as children. If our parents controlled what we ate, we might manifest eating disorders as teenagers or adults. If we were told we had to become a doctor or a lawyer, we might have spent our adult lives pursuing our parents’ dreams…or we might have rebelled and pursued other vocations only in reaction to that control and domination.

To break the cycle of control, we, as parents, must challenge how we were indoctrinated as children. We can learn to move beyond disempowering stereotypes and prejudices about children and childhood.


Controlling vs. Co-creating

Breaking the cycle of control does not mean abdicating our responsibility to our children. There are many who will interpret letting go of control as irresponsible and hands-off parenting. In fact, breaking the cycle of control and coming from an entirely new paradigm takes tremendous involvement with children.

Letting go of control requires us to interact with children from a place that honors their experiences, their feelings, and their needs and wants. It requires more than “do it because I told you so.” We must be co-creators with our children.

I try to see my children as having a different worldview and a different set of experiences, just as I would see a person who comes from a different racial or socio-economic background. The parenting process becomes not one in which I strive to have my children accept my particular view of the world, but rather one where I try to understand their view and, when needed and asked, I communicate my view of the world.

Together, we learn from each other and we co-create our experiences. My experiences are not more important than Martel’s or Greyson’s. They are different. Often I must act as an interpreter to the adult world in which I live. Often they act as interpreters to their world.

When they are treated with disrespect because they are children, I help them to understand why that might have happened. My responsibility is to understand the impact it has on them, not project what I think the impact is. When they say or do things that might hurt others, I work to help them understand the impact their words and behavior may have as well.

I am by no means in a perfect place in this co-creating relationship. Do I resort to power and control? Yes. At times it is because I must ensure that the children are safe. I will yell at my son to stop if he is running in the parking lot away from me, or into the street. I step between them if they are hurting each other.

But when safety is not an issue, I have also resorted to domination and control. My parenting is a process. Unlearning adultism is a process. I spent 42 years fully indoctrinated in my belief that I have the right and responsibility to exercise control over children.

I have spent only two years defining a new way of living that is respectful of their worldview and lives up to the values I espouse in my professional and personal life, working with issues of diversity and social justice. I have a long way to go on my journey. It is the process of learning to let go of what I know, rather than being perfect all the time, that allows me the room to grow.


Pathways Issue 32 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #32.

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