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.


Unknown said...

Hi Kate.

I hope I'm not being too presumptuous in commenting here, not being a parent and all, but your experience brought to mind a number of things I've been ruminating about for a while.

It seems to me to be more than simply "strict vs. permissive;" that's just too easy a distinction, and frankly doesn't mean very much.

To me, the issue is a much deeper question about the nature of authority. Not just "what is authority" (although the philosophy major in me really wants to go there :) but specifically, just what exactly is a person in authority supposed to do? How does one judge whether someone is using their authority successfully?

To get more down to earth: whenever I hear about people complaining about permissive parents, or especially about permissive public schools, I just have to conclude that they have a radically different view of what education is supposed to be than I do. I'm guessing that you agree with me that education isn't just rote memorization or whatever, it's more about learning how to learn, or learning how to live and enjoy this crazy world we live in.

These others, it seems, view education (and parenting) as a pacification and regimentation program, producing people more than content to support the status quo. Okay, I know that last bit has political implications, but it is a political issue.

So to go back to my original thought: if you have authority over someone, what is your goal? Do you want to produce people who (to use Kantian language) have autonomy? Or do you want people who live their lives by something other than their own lights?

So I think you're right that there was much more at stake yesterday than who played with whom; it really was a stark demonstration of core values, of how people view life itself.

David Andrew Kearney said...

I don't know what happened, but that last post was from me. :)

Susie said...

Perhaps the "Unknown" namifier was simply your existentialist post-script, David. The philosophical cream on the cake. :) Kate, I have to confess, it's been a while since I've read your blog-- and man, with all the brain cells I feel like I've lost over the past few years of baby raising, it's nice to see that the same thing hasn't happened to you. But for what it's worth, I wholeheartedly agree with what you've said here. I once visited Marin County for a job interview my husband had, and we were placed at a very professional hotel. We had a very active toddler and a newborn, and I remember getting out of the elevator with them. I prepared the stroller to exit the elevator, and (should have expected but) didn't anticipate quickly enough my busy two year old bolting into the hallway as soon as the door opened, nearly running into a white collar professional waiting there. His angry response of, "Control the Kid Will Ya!" surprised and embarrassed me, and I mumbled an apology. Should I have grabbed her hand firmly before the door opened? Definitely. She was my first and I was still learning such things. Knowing her strength, speed and willpower, I may even have tried this, I don't remember. I'm a pretty strict parent in many ways, but that toddler (my first) certainly wore down my nerves. I am so glad that we instead found a job in a rural area where E could survive her childhood. Parenting fail? I don't think so. But he did.

Kate said...

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments! See, David, I knew I'd use some fancy-schmancy philosophy word like agency and someone who actually knows what he's talking about would chime in. : )

I can speak to MY goal in regards to authority, and that is to create autonomous people. Although I really think that the idea that we have control over someone, even (and maybe especially) children, is an illusion so I'm not sure it's really a choice to make. I can exercise extreme authority in the form of threats or physical violence, but in reality I cannot MAKE another person do something. They still have a choice, even if it is a bad one. And it has been my observation that parents that do this with regularity create children who sometimes make the "wrong" choice because, I believe, it becomes more valuable to them to experience and exercise their autonomy than to please a parent or avoid punishment. I think your expansion to the political and general social realm is very intriguing. I wonder who these kids in all areas of the spectrum will grow up to become? Only time will tell.

Susie, your story illustrates so well how we as parents are judged in every moment by every type of person with every sort of expectation. I've been there, too, and it hurts. I'm hoping I'm getting better at shrugging it off.

It actually made me think of an interesting story, and I can't believe I forgot it as it just happened. At the Seattle Half last weekend, I was about 400 yards from the finish line in downtown Seattle when a family with two little kids attempted to cross at a corner, right in front of me. The parents carrying their littlest were playing frogger with us runners pretty well, but the little girl (probably about 4) ran right in front of me and I ran right into her. Luckily neither of us fell over, but I had to stop and go around her. I asked if she was ok as I did, and kept going. I heard the lady behind me snap at the parents that they should watch their kid, and they called out an apology and I didn't think to respond with an "It's ok" or anything like that (I'd run 13 miles, and I'm not sure if I would have known how to tie my shoes at that point). I felt pretty bad for them, and the girl especially. She was at a crosswalk, of the type I'm sure she'd crossed by herself before, and saw nothing wrong with trotting through it like she usually does, and I'm sure her parents didn't anticipate that she'd just keep going as usual. She had no idea what we were doing or that we were focused and might not see her, and wouldn't be looking to stop for someone. How many kids regularly cross streets while marathons are going on? But I bet that she remembers that and learns from it, though, and so do her parents. Just like we do, and our kids do. I do wish that people in general were a little kinder to parents and kids, both of whom have a pretty steep learning curve.

And if all else fails, I remind myself that they should be thankful us babymakers are producing little workers who will eventually pay their social security, so maybe they can cut us a little slack. : )