We’ve been reading a lot about out of control behavior in the last several weeks. Perhaps some distinctions can be made between the behavior of Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr.Strauss-Kahn, but they are alike in falling outside the bounds of what is socially – if not legally – acceptable.
Elie Wiesel was quoted in a newspaper story, citing a Talmudic saying that no one is the owner of his instincts. Mr. Wiesel goes on to say, “But controlling them, that is civilization.” I think what that saying means is that our instincts operate independently of our will. And Mr. Wiesel is saying that a civilized society requires that we learn to control those instincts.
This idea seems very meaningful for us as parents. The issue of control comes up in so many of the things that we think about and are concerned about in raising our children. Childhood is a time when instincts and impulses are expressed so readily in behavior. Children go after the things they find pleasurable and strike out when denied what they want. They act in accordance with their desires and without much awareness of the effect of their behavior on someone else.
Do we ever really lose the impulse to demand or just take what we want? We probably never “own” those impulses, as the Talmudic saying suggests. At best we have learned to control the behavior those impulses give rise to, and then have pushed the wishes themselves far down inside in order to fortify our control over our behavior. So there are strong reactions to others – especially those in the public eye – who don’t have, or don’t use those controls over their own behavior. We harshly condemn them and reassure ourselves that we would never act that way. Or who knows, maybe there are also some secret wishes to feel free enough to indulge in such behavior.
The same thing often happens in response to our children’s primitive, as yet unsocialized and uncivilized behavior. During infancy we are accepting of babies’ need to function in accordance with their instincts: to suck, to cry, to be held, even when providing this care interferes with our own wishes and needs. But when babies turn into children, we start to think about “setting limits” on what now seems like infantile behavior.
Of course it is appropriate for children to start to learn about controlling their impulses, and for us to start to teach them to do so. The question is how to do that. Often this process involves our own self-control as much as it does our child’s. We sometimes talk about the capacity of children to bring us down to their level. We find ourselves screaming in response to their screaming, at times even hitting in response to their hitting. A child’s lack of control can make us feel out of control ourselves.
The uncivilized behavior of our children peels back our own layers of civilization. So we get worried about their behavior – and our own – which can lead to a great feeling of urgency about getting everyone’s behavior under control. When that happens it is easy to stop teaching and look for ways to make children stop doing what they are doing, or start doing what we want them to do.
One familiar way of doing that is to express in the strongest way our disapproval of behavior we think children should control. We tend to label such behavior “bad”. The problem is that children don’t distinguish between their behavior and themselves. If their behavior is “bad”, that means they are “bad”. Their feelings and impulses lead to such behavior, so the feelings and impulses begin to seem not only “bad”, but dangerous. Controlling the behavior can get mixed up with not feeling the feelings.
Does that matter? An important part of developing self control is being able to tell the difference between feelings and behavior. Having certain feelings doesn’t mean we are going to act on them. If we can’t tell the difference, having those feelings doesn’t feel safe. Truly being in control means being aware of our feelings yet being confident that we won’t act on them. We might feel like hitting a child who is getting our goat but know we won’t do it. Or if we do, we are able to stop.
Children need help and time to develop those controls. That time involves our not expecting more of them than they are capable of. Help means providing the control they don’t as yet have. When a baby is crawling toward a light socket, we don’t depend on words to help her stop. We’re there to stop her. In the same way, it doesn’t help a child to keep telling him not to hit his sister, or not to take his little brother’s toys. We have to provide the intervention that will help him actually control those impulses when they are getting the better of him.
Feeling an impulse and not acting on it is what gives one the experience of self control. Our children may never “own” their instincts, but hopefully we can help as they begin to master them.