The Search for Control

New methods are always turning up in the search to control the behavior of children that parents and teachers find unmanageable.  Earlier I wrote about a method that deals with particularly difficult behavior in the classroom and made the point that methods generally are difficult to follow.  This can be true for parents as well as teachers even in more typical daily interactions with children that may present problems.  Parents often say that methods they have tried were either useless or didn’t work as outlined in a book or manual.

The problem lies in the attempt to control children’s behavior.  What does control really mean?  It usually implies trying to make a child comply with the wishes or orders of an adult.  The difficulty arises when the child does not want to do what the parent wants done.  This often can lead to a confrontation between parent and child.  Children resist complying in a variety of ways.  They dawdle, they don’t respond, or they respond in unpleasant ways such as temper tantrums.  Parents get frustrated and angry.  That’s when the impulse arises to “make” the child do what you want.

How do you “make” a child do something?  You can try physical control, which may work at times when children are still very small.  Even so, children usually protest with their bodies and parents can find themselves in a physical altercation that, given a parent’s bigger size and greater strength leaves one feeling like a bully.  Punishment then becomes the next step – time out a favorite – that then raises a problem of enforcement and again, the need for compliance.  That is when the search begins for a method that will bring about the wished for compliance from the child.

How many of you remember “Kramer vs. Kramer?”  There is a wonderful scene in the film in which this frustrating process between parent and child is enacted.  You may recall that the father in the film, who has had minimal hands-on experience with his son, finds himself as the primary caregiver when his wife unexpectedly walks out on them.

In this scene, the little boy decides he wants the ice-cream his father had brought home even though he has not eaten his dinner (sound familiar?).  The father says no, in a reasonable way, whereupon the child marches over to the refrigerator to open the freezer door.  The father’s tone becomes more menacing as he warns the boy not to take another step.  It is clear watching this that the child is set to defy his father, and indeed he proceeds to take the container of ice-cream to the table, remove the cover and digs in his spoon taking the first bite.  At each step the father warns him in an increasingly threatening tone that the child better stop before going any further.

Anyone can guess what finally happens.  The now enraged father picks up the boy, knocking aside the container of ice-cream, carries him kicking and screaming into his room where he throws him on the bed, leaving the boy crying hysterically.  Of course, the father now feels like a brute and tries to comfort his son, in effect apologizing for his behavior.  What follows is a conversation between them in which the father speaks to the boy’s upset about his mother’s absence – a conversation that might have prevented the entire scene if it had come at the beginning instead of the end of the altercation.

The father clearly understood the boy’s feelings and need to defy him – in effect to test him as an authority figure.  Why wasn’t he able to act on that understanding at first instead of at last?  This speaks to why methods are often useless.  Feelings get in the way – both those of the child and the parent.  In this instance, as the child was testing the father’s authority, the father was invested in proving his authority.  It was as though if he failed to make the child comply he would be losing his standing forever as the parent in charge.

But staying in charge does not have to mean bending someone to your will.  It means accomplishing your goal as a parent without the need to prove to your child that your will prevailed.  Parents are smarter than children and can figure out how to do that much of the time if they can recognize their own feelings and not act on them.

A major goal of child-rearing is to help a child be aware of his feelings but not act on them in a destructive way.  That is a major challenge of growing up.  When we master that challenge as parents, we go a long way in helping our children do the same.  This is where control lies – not in a method.