Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's All About Control

Early childhood comes equipped with certain hallmark stages.  Many of them are endearing enough to keep us afloat during the other stages – the not-so-sweet kind.  But because we’re only human, and perhaps trained to remember the negatives above the positives, we focus on the irritations. 
The toddler’s tantrums. 
The preschooler’s meltdowns. 
The Kindergartner’s attitude. 
Something we fail to realize, more often than not, is that many of these so-called negative stages in child development can be traced back to a common motivator: control.
Basically, our kids are trying everything they can to gain control over their lives.  When they feel their desires aren’t being met: control.  When they see their hopes dashed: control.  When they’ve made a decision that is overridden: control. 
I don’t expect a little one to be allowed complete control at all times; they haven’t yet learned how to temper their desires with careful wisdom as a parent would hopefully do.  But I suspect that if we found ways to empower our children to feel more in control of their own bodies and actions, they’d exhibit less of the negative behaviors that are so frustrating.  A tantrum or meltdown could be avoided by allowing them a bit of freedom in their decisions.   And even more importantly, we’d be preparing our kids to enter a world that expects them to make their own decisions, and filling them with confidence because we’ve trusted them with the results.
Here are a few ideas – some specific, and some general – to begin transferring control to our young children:
Let them choose their own clothing each day.  If they become too cold in a tank-top on an early spring day, they’ll learn about the restrictions of weather, and learn to go find a jacket.  Unless you’ll be sitting for a professional photography session, don’t worry about mismatched patterns.  Hold your tongue and be proud that they did all the work themselves.
Place common items within their reach.   Many times, we say no simply because we don’t feel like retrieving a certain item.  But that doesn’t mean there’s any reason they shouldn’t have it.  Does your daughter always beg for the purple towel at bath time?  Let her know where to find it so she can get it herself before bathing begins.  Does your son prefer a specific cup at all meals?   Rearrange the cupboards to allow him to easily find it. 
Show them that you believe in their capability.  When they are challenged by a new task, like tying their shoes, encourage repeated attempts rather than stepping in immediately to save the day.  Say things like “I know you can do this, it just takes a little practice.”  Being in control is sometimes overwhelming; they need our obvious trust.
Use their input for rule-making.  The knowledge that they were included in decisions regarding their own actions is often helpful in smoothing out the enforcement. 
Allowing these short steps towards personal empowerment will work as long as they’re not done in reaction to the negative outbursts.  After a meltdown or outbreak of disrespectful attitude, they’ve lost the privilege of controlling that particular aspect for the moment.  But when done prior-to, as a style of parenting on an everyday basis, empowerment can help our kids get through the inevitable stages of control-seeking without becoming bogged down in bad habits.


  1. I cringe every time K comes out in a crazy outfit with wildly mismatched patterns, but I agree with you: it's good to encourage independence. And, I'm trying...especially in the "I'm saying no just because I don't feel like getting up and getting it for you, but not because I don't want you to have it" category. That happens A LOT in our house. And I really believe K can get her own oranges out of the refrigerator! Soon...right?

  2. Oh, I have a lot of trouble with that one here, too. Remembering that they CAN get it for themselves is kind of liberating for parents, you know? Why didn't I just notice sooner?! :)

  3. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for your great suggestions. I also believe in encouraging independence, and realized recently that sometimes when I do things for my child it is more for myself than for him, so it will just get done faster. One great place to foster independence is in the kitchen. My two-and-a-half year old likes standing on a chair beside me and "helping." I try to give him simple but meaningful tasks, such as stirring ingredients in a bowl. He's gotten quite good at it. He also loves to crack eggs-- and yes, the yolk always breaks and we often end up with bits of shell in there, but it's worth it because he's becoming comfortable with food and cooking.

  4. I do that exactly, Sarah -- hinder them from doing things on their own because it's just easier on my own. But the repercussions of that are so high, right?! I'll be getting drinks and wiping bottoms for YEARS, and that's definitely not better!

    I love your kitchen encouragement! They really CAN do so much, and the messes are just the decorations some learning accomplishments :)


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?