The Allure Of Control-Based Parenting
Updated: Aug 17
Babies are full human beings
When our babies are born, we see them as pure and innocent. We hold them close and vow to protect them and cherish them always. Soon after birth, our babies start reminding us that they are full human beings with their own needs. These needs sometimes conflict with our own and therein begins the conflict.
We want to sleep all night but they get hungry and cry at 2am, 4am, and 6am respectively. We want peace and quiet but they fuss, make noise, and cry. Our babies start to get classified by family members as "good babies" (aka ones who don't make noise) and "difficult babies" (aka babies who are vocal about their needs). With our own needs unmet due to many factors (lack of support, no village, etc), we start to believe that controlling our children is the best way to solve this conflict.
We try to control them
Our first attempts at control may be via "controlled crying" (aka cry-it-out). We want to "train" them how to sleep and this is done by leaving them to cry alone for varying amounts of time depending on what school of cry-it-out you follow. As they get older, we ignore them when they are "just trying to get attention" as a way to not give "positive reinforcement" to that behavior lest they keep trying to get our attention all the time. And the training/control methods go on and on.
It's almost as if, due to our own unmet needs as parents, we have declared a war against the natural drives of babies and children. Their natural sleep cycles need to be "trained" out of them. They want to sleep with us but we train them to sleep on their own. They want closeness and we want space so we try to get them independent as quickly as possible. When they get older, we use "consequences" (aka punishment) and positive reinforcement (aka rewards) to control their behavior. We use every tool we can think of to control them.
Control-based parenting is all around us
Children's natural drives to play, be loud, roughhouse, mimic their culture/what they are exposed to, test limits/boundaries, and signal their caregivers to meet their needs are seen as undesirable and adults attempt to modify all of these drives one way or another.
Control-based parenting is ubiquitous. How many times have we said these phrases or heard other parents use them:
"Quiet down or we are going home!" (threat/negative reinforcement)
"No roughhousing" (Even though this is a need for children and can be done safely)
"You better speak respectfully to me or else (insert punishment) (negative reinforcement/threat)
"What is wrong with you! Why did you do that?!" (usually said after a child tests a limit or boundary or when a child's needs are unmet and they are signaling this in the best way they know how due to their developmental stage. These words are negative reinforcement since they shame the child)
"Stop crying and use your words." (suppression of emotions, pushing a child to deny their needs, shame)
"Share your toys or we are going home." (threat/negative reinforcement, pushing a child to share before they are ready/understand the concept)
"If you do ________, then I will do ___________ to you." (threat/negative reinforcement)
Yelling to enforce rules/scare children into compliance. (yelling is an example of negative reinforcement)
These are all attempts to modify and control a child's behavior. Yes, we are our children's guardians and we are here to keep them safe. However, many of the attempts to control and manipulate our children through threats, punishments, and rewards are unnecessary and can be harmful in the short and long term.
We are tired and we just want our children to do what we say. We don't have a village to support us. It is just one or two parents and that's it. Our children need to understand what is dangerous and how to keep their hands to themselves. How can we accomplish this without threats and control-based parenting?
What if we don't need to control our kids?
What if our children are born fully, authentically themselves and they don't need to be modified, manipulated, and controlled? What if our ways of parenting are actually causing most of the problems we are trying to avoid.
Hear me out.
When we begin to modify our children's natural drives and instincts via manipulation and control, we are actually robbing them of the freedom of being able to follow their innate programming. Their innate programming, when left undisturbed, naturally sets them on a path toward being prosocial, kind, generous, content, and productive humans. We actually don't need to train our children to be this way, they are born ready to become it. When we try to manipulate and control them, we are thwarting their innate system.
Kids are born to be pro-social
How do I know that children are born primed to be prosocial? Because the human race has depended on us to be this way for millennia. We are a communal species that relies on sharing and community to survive. We are not lone wolves, we are social creatures and we are primed to follow the social norms of our community. When we are born, we are sponges absorbing everything about the social group we were born into. Our children are born naturally oriented toward learning the customs of their people and fitting in. If anything they do is running contrary to social customs it is most likely because A. Their needs aren't being met at that moment and they need help or B. They are too young to understand the social norm they are violating.
Allow them to be themselves
So perhaps the best way to help our children do all the things we wish they would do (e.g. be safety conscious, kind, generous, prosocial, hardworking, motivated, critical thinking, etc) is actually to keep their innate drives intact. How do we keep these drives intact? We try really hard NOT to manipulate or control our children. We allow them to have their own internal compass and intrinsic motivation. By forcing our children to be generous or kind, we are teaching them to be inauthentic, and worse, we are overriding their natural, intrinsic motivation to be generous and kind. That motivation is there within them and without coercion/manipulation, their generosity and kindness will shine through authentically in due course.
Allowing our children to be themselves and to develop on their own timeline requires that we radically trust our kids. We trust that they are intrinsically motivated to become good humans. We trust that if their needs are met and they live in a healthy environment, they will grow into the beautiful, authentic, sovereign person they are met to be.