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Is Total Control a Good Thing?

Previously I've mentioned setting a good example at the table.   I'm sure you're aware that if adults shun veggies and other dietary goodies, they can expect the kiddies to follow their lead.

I know of homes, however, where the parents eat all kinds of veggies and other healthy food with gusto and the kids shun a number of them completely.   What's going on?  I think in many cases it's lack of control.

"Whooops!," you say.  "Unfair!  I can't control what my kids eat."

Right, that's the point.   I'm not referring to the parents' control over the kids.  I mean the kid's control (or lack of it) over their own lives.

At about two years of age, children begin to perceive themselves as separate entities from their parents, with their own desires and ideas and rights. They begin to dimly perceive that human beings were born to (hopefully) be in charge of their own destinies.  This is not-so-fondly referred to as the "terrible twos".  Children begin to push the envelope; they want to control their bedtime, their diet, what they can touch or wear or play with and all other facets of their lives. 

Give them too much control and not only will they get into trouble; the lack of secure guidelines will scare them.  Give too many choices and they are overwhelmed and utilize it as a way of getting attention.  They still need stability in their daily routines.

Give them too little control, however, and they are compelled to take some back, somewhere.   Delaying tactics, pouting, not hearing, redirection, tantrums and other awfuls are all attempts to seize control of life.   We can reason with them, put them in the corner, lock them in their rooms (very bad idea), or a closet (an illegal, traumatizing event, but some people do it), smack them when we lose it (also a bad idea), take away privileges (too young to make the connection).... the list of possible retribution is endless.  Kids will just find some other way to gain control.  Why?  They must.

One area of almost complete control children have is their food intake.  They can refuse items or develop aversions.  If we persist, they can choke, throw up, develop diarrhea or constipation, or eventually, an eating disorder such as obesity, anorexia or bulimia.   In school and alone at grocery stores and snack bars, they can really become independent by eating all the things we don't want them to and refusing the things they've decided they don't like  (they all do this to some extent).   In the end, we cannot control what goes through their digestive systems.  We shouldn't try to force it, either; just engage in sneaky tactics AND give them more control in other parts of their lives.  

We must help children gain control in a healthy way, starting at age two.  That's the whole point of having kids, right?  To produce a competent, independent adult?  

Often parents try to keep control over everything; after all, they are adults and know best.  Also, since parents are supplying food, lodging and services, they feel that gives them the right to call the shots.   Plus by controlling every facet of a child's life- clothes, diet, money, scheduling and so on- they believe they will be teaching their children the right way to go.   Not so!  Suppose you coached children in basketball by making baskets, dribbling, etc., over and over again by yourself.  Would the kids learn?  Not likely. 

There's many ways of giving them control without creating  chaos.  Whenever possible, give them a limited choice;  a selection of only two kinds of sandwiches or soup for lunch, a pick between three or four outfits to wear, a choice of picking up toys before or after a bath or dinner, etc.  Cut older kids a little slack.  A hard and fast rule, such as homework before TV, is you taking control, not them learning to do their schoolwork.  A better solution might be to take away the TV altogether for a while if they don't turn in their homework regularly for a defined period of time, perhaps a week.  Get creative with the consequences of their actions! 

When you give them an allowance, don't budget it.  Trust me; they'll never learn to handle money.  If you want them to save for college, let them know YOU are saving for their college fund.  Let them blow their allowance or save it to buy goodies they want.

While we're on the subject of control, I believe that one of the most damaging things a parent (almost always a male) can say to a disobedient child is "As long as you live in my house, you'll do as I say."

The parent may think they say this to scare the kid into behaving.  I'm positive that they are actually expressing a wish that the child isn't there any longer, and kids pick up on this.  In many, many parts of the world, children by the hundreds of   thousands each year, primarily from poor homes, have to fend for themselves on the street by 8, 10, 12 or so years of age.  So this "urge to abandon" isn't just a wild theory.  The results are malnutrition, illness, prostitution, drug addiction and a (short) life of crime in many cases. 

In other words, this statement, always said in anger, is the parents' temper tantrum, born of exasperation at not being able to keep control.  Any child with guts will silently start planning on how to leave as soon as possible.  The tragedy is that when a child is told this, it's almost a given he or she isn't prepared to be on their own.  Mothers:  if the father or stepfather says this, my advise is to get counseling immediately.  (Yes, my father said it to me over something fairly trivial, and I left a couple of months later when I turned sixteen; not a good thing.)     

Parents should be there to provide, guide, advise, protect and pick up the pieces, not to control.  If you are setting a good example at the table, and despite this your kids are refusing to eat several foods, you might stop and consider if they need more control in other areas of their life.   Give them some.  You'll have happier, better adjusted kids who are learning valuable lessons in living. 

See how I gave my kids control over what they ate in "Help Along the Leaning Curve".

The Sneaky Kitchen
Web Site by Bess W. Metcalf   Copyrightę April 1999 - 201
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