Friday, December 2, 2011

Control Issues

I was all ready to post today about how well Sam is doing with the preschool switch, but with a few recent occurrences, I'm feeling the need to wrap my head around something different today....mainly, the idea of "parental control." I don't know a parent who hasn't heard the command that we should "control our kid!" either directly, or indirectly as a blanket statement about so-called permissive parents. Before I dive in, I should acknowledge that there are certainly bad parents out there, ones that don't care what their kids do or how they do it. But it's been my experience that those parents are few and far between. We may not always know how to get a desired result, or we may be tired, overwhelmed, or stymied, but most parents I know DO care about how their children conduct themselves in the world, even when others aren't looking.

When I hear that phrase, though, it always makes me think. Hmmm....."controlling my kid." What exactly does that mean? How would it look in everyday life? How do we "control" another person, someone with their own feelings, priorities, thoughts, desires and motivations? I had some opportunity to meditate on this today.

Sam, Caroline and I went to the park this afternoon to blow off some steam after a day of housework and lounging. He no longer has school on Friday afternoons, so I've been letting those days fall into a more unstructured pattern. We stay in our jammies a little longer, linger over breakfast, clean up the house and do some chores, and watch some TV. It's nice to not have to rush off. But by the afternoon, the kids are ready for a little exercise. This afternoon, we decided to head to a new local park with an awesome ropes course. We went for the first time over the holiday, and Sam loved the three-dimensional spiderweb of ropes to climb up and through. When we got there, it was mostly deserted due to the cold except for a mom with a son and a dad with a daughter who seemed to have met for a playdate.

Time to stop again so I can editorialize. I try really, really hard to not judge other parents. I wasn't always this way. Frankly, I was pretty sanctimonious when Sam was younger. But as I grew into parenting I relaxed a little bit. As I often tell Sam, different families have different rules, and making a hypothesis about the quality or kind of parenting a kid is receiving based on a five minute encounter is patently unfair. People have bad days, check out for a bit, or are just worn down and sometimes what I see isn't their best effort, so I try to be kind. With that said, I present the following while trying to not judge. But it's gonna be hard.

The little boy, probably about 3, had a car he was enjoying. Sam, seeing that, wanted to head back to the car for his own toy and did so, bringing it to the kid for a trade, which the little boy was happy to do. They were playing contentedly together when the mom of the little boy called him over. She informed him that his playdate was with THIS child (pointing to little girl with dad) and he was here to play with HER.

I was....puzzled. I'm used to different parents having different playground rules, but this was a new one. I explained it to Sam and he found something else to do. Over the next half-hour or so, I observed this mom take away the kid's trucks when he started to send them noisily down the metal slide like Sam (I should mention that no one at the bottom or in the vicinity was there to be hit by them, which would have been an occasion to tell Sam to stop), tell him to be careful to not hurt his friend when he wanted to spin her on a toy, and speak sharply to him and give me the stink-eye when he tried to copy something Sam did that was safe for a 5 year old but not a 3 year old. Come to think of it, she gave me the stink-eye a lot.

So, yeah, that was one controlled kid. And to his credit, he was pretty good about doing what his mom asked. But at what cost? The message he was clearly receiving from his mom in that moment was that she expected him to play with the kids SHE wanted him to play with and not anyone else, to play with his toys in a way SHE preferred, that trying new things was dangerous, and that she pretty much expected him to hurt his friends unless she was there to remind him not to. Extrapolating a bit, what is this kid going to learn as he grows, if this is consistent behavior from his parent? Is he going to be comfortable or confident making his own decisions? Is he going to feel like he is a good, worthwhile person with interesting ideas? Will he take responsibility for his own actions? Will he have any personal agency at all?

When people proclaim that we parents should "control our kids," I think this is what they think that looks like - instant obedience and instruction based on prevention instead of correction. And we poor parents can't win for losing. So often, these same parents get criticized in the teenage years especially for being "helicopter parents" - wanting to micromanage their children, make decisions for them, fill out their college applications so they're done right, bird-dog their classes. Often it seems, those same people that think parents these days can't control their little kids are just as incensed when their teenage employees send in Mom to negotiate their salary or a higher grade in their law school class.

Maybe it seems like I'm exaggerating a bit, but I really do believe that it all starts at this age. Kids are not little adults, and they have to learn these things somewhere. Giving them enough room to make mistakes is part of their growing process, and some of them need a little more room than others. Finding that balance of necessary room and teaching social skills is a tricky one, and it's different for each parent and each situation. A playground and an airplane are two different places, for instance. But find it we must for our kids to develop into the functional grown-ups we hope they will become.

And if we get the stink-eye every now and then, well, I guess that's just the cost of business.