Open thread: The psychology of parental control

Published by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 08:56 AM

Classic PBH advice — Are you choosing the books, materials, and activities? Are you researching the field trip and making the fun plans? Let the kids do it! They’ll be more engaged, they’ll acquire more life skills, and they’ll retain ownership over their work. The more we do, the less they can do.

Yet parents have said to me, “I like being the one who plans things. That’s my role. It’s fun for me.”

Of course it’s fun for you — but as Capt. Picard points out, how engaged are kids if you’re the one doing the fun part? How much ownership do they feel when you’re the one doing the important stuff?

I’ve been reading a great book called The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires, and one basic idea it shares is that parents don’t just control kids through threats and punishment, they also control them through positive-seeming actions like rewards and managing their activities.

Some quotes for you:

“[P]arental control does not simply mean yelling or using physical punishment. … Some parents’ most controlling behavior comes from their desire to provide the very best for their children and to be certain that their children are not missing out on a single opportunity.”

“Parents and other caretakers can control through physical punishment, but they can also control through rewards and even praise.”

“If the goal of a parent is to assist in the development of a self-reliant, competent individual, then there are many ways in which control, although well meant, backfires.”

“If parental control is one end of the spectrum, what is its opposite? One answer is parents’ support of autonomy in their children. Autonomy support is an active process, which involves taking a child’s frame of reference, supporting independent problem solving, and involving the child in creating rules and structures. Using this approach, parents also provide choices for children and encourage their children to initiate their own activities. The goal of autonomy-supportive parenting is to facilitate a sense of self-initiation in children and to support their active attempts to solve their own problems.”

It is easy to see how PBH aligns with autonomy-supportive parenting.

If we’re the ones who choose materials, arrange activities, control the budget, make decisions, and take the role of providing exciting experiences both at home and on the go, we are maintaining control. That puts our child into a passive role. We have every good intention, but we rob our children of agency.

No matter how *awesome* the experience — and the life — we make for our child, they are passive and they don’t feel ownership, agency, or control. They don’t get the critical experiences they need to make their own awesome life — defined however they see fit.

— — —

We are constantly trying to explain to parents new to PBH that they shouldn’t ask for resource suggestions but should instead help their child find their own resources.

The parents are confused — shouldn’t they want to find the *best* books, the *best* resources, the *best* activities?

But that’s a short cut, isn’t it? Asking for help locating the *best* resources means you don’t have to go out and laboriously find them yourself. It means you don’t have to spend time checking out and bringing home and flipping through those books that looked good but were actually useless. It means you don’t have to sift through a lot of possibilities online.

Of course, we don’t want you to do that boring slog yourself — we want your child to do it!

Slowly locating the best resources seems like a waste of time. But it is how children learn. And it is never a waste of time for children to do their own meaningful work, at their own pace, in their own way.

When it comes to learning, we don’t want to take a short-cut.

If they don’t have the opportunity to compare and contrast different books and other resources and decide which are the best — which have exactly the information they need, which present it in the most easily understood way, which are more entertaining and fun to read — they don’t develop the ability to do that. They don’t practice critical thinking; they don’t learn to set their own goals and make good assessments. They become passive recipients of other people’s suggestions.

They may even look at the “best” book and think (silently), Oh well, this isn’t what I wanted, so I guess what I wanted doesn’t exist, since this is the *best* book.

They learn that the way to find what you need is to ask other people or find a blog post listing the “10 best” xyz. They are trained away from active, hands-on research. They don’t develop the skills to wade through all the options and determine which best meet their needs and desires.

When we become a filter for our child, we take away their need to learn how to filter. When we depend on someone else to filter for us, we’re choosing from a subset created by a random person who doesn’t know us or our child. Our child is now two or more degrees away from doing their own research and making their own discoveries.

PBH is slow learning, and we should be in no hurry to find great resources. All of the work that goes into researching, discussing, comparing, rejecting, branching out, talking to experts, and so on — *that’s why we’re here*.

“The ways we control can be subtle and can be laden with good intentions.

Think of a small boy holding a bunch of tulips. To keep the flowers together, he grasps them tightly. By the time he arrives at his grandmother’s, the stems are crushed. But he meant well. That same sort of thing can happen to parents who hold on too tightly to their children.”

…and to their children’s learning experiences.

“When children go through the motions, complying with adult directives and contingencies, even the positive outcomes they accrue — good grades, trophies, and so on — do not facilitate a positive feeling.

Only when the person feels a sense of ownership of his or her actions can positive experiences translate into healthy self-esteem and well-being.

The goal of parenting for positive self-esteem is not necessarily to ensure that things go right. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the child has one more trophy on the shelf.

What parents must do is to create conditions under which children can take pleasure in their own choices and accomplishments because they are theirs.” — The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires

• • •

I haven’t done an open thread in a long while, but I’m hoping to make it a regular Monday thing.

For those who haven’t participated before, you can ask any question or share/discuss whatever you wish in the comments — it doesn’t have to be related to the above discussion. The thread will stay live so don’t hesitate to jump in after it’s already been up awhile!

30 comments

Comment by Abbyw on December 7, 2015 at 11:20 AM

THIS JUST HAPPENED, this morning!
I was at the table reading a book about character traits, and My 11 year old wandered over after he finished his breakfast, the conversation started easily and naturally.
Me: "This author says children should develop twenty character traits by the time they are a young adult. Here are some of the traits she suggests..." I listed about ten and asked him, "What do you think? DO you agree? What should we add?"

" Well I think 'do your best' should just be diligence, it sounds better."

We started a list, each adding items he offered most of the suggestions. I added hygiene and he covered his ears and dramatically faked his own death. Boys seem to go through this phase where showers seem like a huge burden. Ha ha ha!

The conversation progressed to Tiny Habits (I've been sharing about BJ Fogg's research and habit algorithm this past week, metacognition. Thanks Lori for that great word, we now use it all the time). Then to goals and so he set a few goals one mental, one physical and one spiritual.
Thank you for the great topic! Win for us in this moment.

An aside my daughter was quite heartbroken last night at bedtime about her belief that "no one in this family seems to care about christmas!"
Apparently decorating is very meaningful to her so today I'm hoping she will come up with a plan to Bring in the Christmas spirit to our bah humbug family;) and I will find a way to support her i.e. pick up a christmas tree.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 12:46 PM

for interested people…

Here’s BJ Fogg’s TEDxFremont talk:

Forget big change, start with a tiny habit

And here’s his website:

BJ Fogg: Tiny Habits

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 12:50 PM

abby, that’s awesome. :) this makes me think of creating a family culture/a set of family values together!

are you brainstorming about holiday decorating? i definitely lean toward the simpler version and one of my sons likes to use every decoration we own! :)

Comment by Abbyw on December 7, 2015 at 10:02 PM

In Louisa May Alcott's book Little Men she notes, "It takes so little to make a child happy, that it is a pity in a world full of sunshine and pleasant things, that there should be any wistful faces, empty hands, or lonely little hearts."

I thought what little thing could we do that would validate her needs, that would be simple and easy?

Monday's are busy for us we have classes outside of home and are gone a big chunk of the day. So we made a plan to buy some Christmas lights and go to the dollar store and I gave her a budget and let her pick out any decorations she wanted.

Now personally I like simple as well, handmade even better, things we make ourselves is the best. But this is inspiring to her and it is inspiring homemade projects as well. She already has plans on how to make the bought decorations better and things she will add later this week.

She is happy and thankful.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2015 at 08:40 AM

wonderful! :)

Comment by aminchau on December 10, 2015 at 09:01 PM

I wondered what your thoughts of this are for preschoolers. We planned a trip to the planetarium after learning about space for a long time. Parents are asking me, what is going to happen in jan when we meet again? I wondered myself. What do we put out for the kids, do we put out space stuff again and let them say, what? this is boring, and is there anything else? Or do we just have informal playdate and find out whats next by watching them. Or do we slowly add some ideas that they have already had some interest in in the past and gather materials for that and slowly guide them to that direction?

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 3, 2016 at 05:27 PM

sorry for my very late reply!

i think you could do any of those things.

you could definitely start with a clean slate and see what the kids chose to make, play, and talk about. do they stick with space? have even more ideas there? or has something new caught the attention of at least a small group, something that could virally pull in the others?

you can always float old, abandoned or unfinished ideas if they seem full of promise and still likely to spark interest. i would just be prepared to let them go if the children don’t run with them.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 11:36 AM

Okay, I got an email from a PBH Tip Sheet reader asking if I could share part of a Tip Sheet I wrote called “Before you strew — stealth vs. deliberate support” and I agree, it goes perfectly with the above topic, so here you go!

“Parent: Today, we were at the library and he looked up “zombies” and stumbled upon a book on how to draw zombies. He lit up and got really excited and then found two additional books of similar theme on the shelf. Of course, I will be strewing some art supplies tomorrow for him. ;)

Me: You might think about *not* strewing those art materials ;) and instead expressly offer them. If you say, “I know you chose those books about drawing zombies — I thought you might need these,” then you are acknowledging his work and showing your support and admiration of his effort.

Similarly, if you make sure he has a great place to draw and gather his books and materials there — and if you ask permission to hang up a couple of his completed drawings — you are really demonstrating your family culture (valuing the work) and creating more opportunity for dialogue between the two of you.”

“Rather than continuing to strew as a habit, we want to be intentional about what we’re doing and why — and when we need to deliberately be more direct.”

“Sometimes it feels like the only option left is to drop books and materials around like Easter eggs and hope that your child picks them up and gets interested without realizing you’re the Bunny.

But this round-about way of engaging with your child can become a habit you continue long after it’s necessary or productive. You can get so used to “strewing” it becomes your default way of passing resources to your child. It can become the default way you support their interest: passively and secretly rather than deliberately and openly.

It’s important to keep your overall goals in mind. If your goal is to build up trust between you and your child so he knows you are NOT trying to take over, does strewing support that? At some point, you need to make your mentoring visible. You need to deliberately show that you are listening, recording, and thoughtfully responding without attempting to take over.”

“If your goal is to help your child direct and manage her own learning, then you don’t want to strew resources for her interest — you want to help her go out and find those resources on her own, examine them and weigh relevance, choose them and explore them more deeply, then employ critical thinking in determining which suited her needs best. None of that comes into play if you are providing a steady stream of materials that simply appear on the end table.”

“Another thing worth pondering: If you are seeding the environment with things you wish your child would do, strewing can verge into manipulation. What we want to do is support our child’s true interests, not try to woo them away from video games to do something we think is better.”

 

Comment by disciple on December 7, 2015 at 05:19 PM

I think this is a really great topic, and a very challenging one! What would you say is the difference between manipulation and building family culture? What do you do with kids who forget how much they love certain activities until they are actually doing them?? I'm asking this as a working mom who is currently not homeschooling--but did for 6 years. I'm trying to build some project time into our evening routine, so we don't have the bigger expanses of time that homeschoolers (sometimes think they should) have.

Comment by disciple on December 7, 2015 at 06:08 PM

I'm going to elaborate/edit, since I posted this too quickly as I was called down to dinner!

I think there are back posts on this blog I can refer back to about building family culture, and about being clear about establishing the pieces of the day that the parents deem necessary, and good.

I guess what I was thinking about was how much excitement and energy a kid might need to have about their project, in order for them to do some of that deeper work of researching and finding resources. It seems to me it would take a lot of trust, or a really juicy project, to believe that the child would take on those things. But I think that reveals my own fears more than anything, and my own leanings of distrust of my kids' attention spans and energy levels!

So the bottom line is, thank you for challenging my fears and pushing me to think further in this direction, to look at how to put more of the power into the kids' hands. I will start looking for opportunities right away! Maybe even just asking them what next art supplies we should invest in, and how they'd like to see their pieces displayed.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 06:27 PM

I guess what I was thinking about was how much excitement and energy a kid might need to have about their project, in order for them to do some of that deeper work of researching and finding resources.

It seems to me it would take a lot of trust, or a really juicy project, to believe that the child would take on those things. But I think that reveals my own fears more than anything, and my own leanings of distrust of my kids' attention spans and energy levels!

i agree that it comes down to fighting our own fears — because that excitement and energy generally comes with two things: authentic interests and (directly related to the quotes in this post) *autonomy*.

if they don’t have complete ownership, their engagement tends to drain away. (and rightfully so!)

many parents struggle with supporting their child’s interest when it is non-academic, even though kids can do tremendous work around *any* interest. we need to look at the work, not the topic. are they gaining knowledge? are they acquiring skills? are they becoming really good at learning, researching, communicating, collaborating? if so, who cares if it’s a project on angry birds? ;)

the great thing is, over time, you see how it works and you get much more confident as a parent and mentor, knowing that if you give your child the time, space, materials, and support, they will learn and grow.

So the bottom line is, thank you for challenging my fears and pushing me to think further in this direction, to look at how to put more of the power into the kids' hands. I will start looking for opportunities right away! Maybe even just asking them what next art supplies we should invest in, and how they'd like to see their pieces displayed.

that is a fantastic idea! :)

keep me updated and let me know how it’s going! xo

 
Comment by Lori Pickert on December 7, 2015 at 06:22 PM

What would you say is the difference between manipulation and building family culture?

well, let’s see.

family culture is what you *do*. every family has a family culture.

some family cultures might include manipulation and control (both positive and negative), but certainly that isn’t always true. you can talk with your children about shared values (see abby’s comment above) and you can strive to have a family culture (a routine, rules, etc.) that reflect the group’s beliefs and needs and not just the parents’.

What do you do with kids who forget how much they love certain activities until they are actually doing them??

you can help them remember by building reminders into your physical environment and having a structure — like project time, and pre-/post-work meetings — that brings that out and shines a light on it.

it’s even trickier with less time, but you could maybe set generous screen limits on the weekends (if you’re home enough!) so they have time to do those favorite things. and of course, all the usual PBH stuff — great space, great environment, do it with them, schedule regular meetings/conferences with older kids (and make it special!), and so on.

make sure they know how much you value that work — which goes back to family culture. :)

Comment by disciple on December 7, 2015 at 07:20 PM

"make sure they know how much you value that work — which goes back to family culture. :)"

This is a really great reminder! I think we are doing a fairly good job of valuing the Time spent together, but really highlighting the Work they are doing is a good step we could easily take.

Thanks for these replies Lori! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2015 at 08:40 AM

you are so welcome xo

Comment by Kerry on December 7, 2015 at 07:43 PM

My SIL and I were just talking about this the other night and how not being able to truly own even the failures is frustrating. It saps all drive to do well. When neither the wins or the losses are yours, you’re invisible.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2015 at 08:43 AM

love the point about owning your own failures! often when a child stumbles or gets stuck, that’s when an adult swoops in and takes over .. or fixes it .. or starts an onslaught of advice.

failure is such a huge part of the process and to own the process, you have to own the failure!

When neither the wins or the losses are yours, you’re invisible

<3

Comment by Donna on December 7, 2015 at 11:09 PM

Although I have homeschooled for over ten years, we began PBL just last year. My challenge is the swaying between desiring to promote that creative independence and yet teaching a bit of wisdom to prevent discouragement stemming from realistic expectations (I have a young one who becomes frustrated and defeated when experiencing too little of what he considers success.).

I have found that two major things encourage our kids projects (which I have gleaned from this site!):

1. Their own project table (which they can keep however they like--they will clean it if they need room! Lol!)
And
2. Thursday Thinking Day, which is devoted to discussing, brainstorming, researching--and library trips or shopping trips as needed.

I am grateful for this site and am inspired every time I visit--thank you!

Donna

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2015 at 08:53 AM

My challenge is the swaying between desiring to promote that creative independence and yet teaching a bit of wisdom to prevent discouragement stemming from realistic expectations

wow, so much to unpack in this statement! it’s a crucial catch-22: if you don’t allow them the independence, they can’t build their *own* wisdom; if you let them fail too much, they lose motivation. tricky stuff!

it’s so hard (but always the goal) to focus our mentoring on the process rather than the product — offering advice about, as you say, realistic expectations vs. “how to get the results you want by doing it this way or that way.”

one thing that can help is building an expectation of temporary failure into the process — for example, by discussing it frankly at pre-work meetings (what’s your plan A? and what if that doesn’t work? what material are you going to use? if that doesn’t do what you want, do you have any other ideas? etc.) so that kids start facing the realization that things rarely work out perfectly on the first go AND they know that *you* know it’s unlikely to work out perfectly on the first go.

you can make sure to give attention and praise to a child’s process work vs. product, e.g., “you really stuck with it and came up with a great solution” and “carrie tried foil to cover the wings but it kept tearing so she thought of using metallic paint and it looks great!” vs. “it looks beautiful!”

and of course as always we can share our own temporary setbacks, which is easier said than done, i know. :) as parents it feels like our job to make our children feel safe and protected by always transmitting a feeling of “i know what i’m doing” — but when we pull back the curtain and show that every road to success in life is a bit bumpy along the way, it gives them permission to relax and accept reality — and still be happy with their eventual, worked-for success.

donna, thank you so much for your kind words and a great topic! :) love setting one day aside for thinking, that is the best!

Comment by Janet Stücklin on December 8, 2015 at 11:49 AM

Thank you, Lori! I was just feeling guilty today that we haven't put our kids in gymnastics for ballet when it seems everyone else has. I am happy to pay for ballet, but I want my children to own it and not just do it because they always have because I put them there. PBH resonates so deeply with me, but it's hard to stay strong when the world around me is so different.

Please do keep posting every Monday!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2015 at 12:18 PM

i will try! :)

we got a lot of pushback for not enrolling our sons automatically in activities like baseball and soccer, but they take a lot of time, effort, budget … and i agree, that level of investment should go to something a child really wants to do and engages with on a personal, deeply engaged level.

if we automatically fill their time with “because everyone else is doing it” activities, i’m guessing we train them to continue with that as they get older and even into adulthood.

Comment by janet on December 10, 2015 at 08:38 PM

great post, lori. so many excellent points to work through. this one seems most relevant tonight.

PBH is slow learning, and we should be in no hurry to find great resources. All of the work that goes into researching, discussing, comparing, rejecting, branching out, talking to experts, and so on — *that’s why we’re here*.

we live life in the slow lane here—completely rejecting "busyness" as a way of life—but i'm still surprised just how slow the learning process can be.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 3, 2016 at 05:24 PM

<3

it’s funny how it can seem “wrong” for learning to go slowly. you really have to (slowly! ;) move your focus from the traditional signposts to new ones in order to feel you are moving at the right pace. back when i was running my school, parents would express frustration that we were *still* on such and such a topic; yet working with the children every day, it was easy to see the real learning that was happening.

Comment by Zilver on January 13, 2016 at 05:01 AM

Of course, we don’t want you to do that boring slog yourself — we want your child to do it!

Slowly locating the best resources seems like a waste of time. But it is how children learn. And it is never a waste of time for children to do their own meaningful work, at their own pace, in their own way.

Thank you! I have spent many nap times looking for the best resources for my child. She's only be two years old, but I think it's time that she joins me in this activity. Especially considering that she has her very own opinion of what a good book is and I haven't been able to figure out her pattern. Thanks to you I know that I don't even need to understand her pattern. It's not up to me to learn what kind of books she likes, it's her job.

Going even further, I remember how I feel when someone gives me a book for my birthday. They never get me a book I like. And even if they did, chances are that I might actually decide it's no longer interesting because I didn't get to choose it for myself. It sounds rather nasty, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I acknowledge the need for making your own choices.

At least my toddler is patiently drawing something almost every day now. I read recently (in a book by Faber and Mazlish) that instead of simply saying "what a pretty drawing" that you should describe exactly what the drawing entails, which in this case is "that is a lot of circles! and over here you went back and forth and back and forth so many times", and I could immediately see a shift in her attitude as soon as I changed my way of praise. Now she draws something, brings it to me and says "paper for mommy", and then goes on to explain "many many circles" before I get the chance, and then she takes the paper back and draws some more.

Again, what I'm trying to say is that I'm finally learning to take a step back from the controlling parent. I wanted to give her everything. Now I know that the only way for her to have everything is if she learns to get there on her own. It's a struggle to take a step back, but she loves every step of the way.

Comment by KT Brison on January 29, 2016 at 12:09 PM

Seriously? I never thought of it this way. So very glad I found your site. I'm already thinking about the responsibilities I can give my boys to help our planning process. Thank you!

Comment by Malika on January 30, 2016 at 04:03 PM

I love the idea of project based homeschooling and have started trying to implement this in addition to what we are already doing. So for my son's first project, he wants to build a flying bike! Of course I am feeling very overwhelmed. He is very serious and I don't want to discourage him but in all honesty, this seems like an impossible project. Help! What do I do?

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 5, 2016 at 07:51 AM

sorry for my very late reply, malika, but i think this is what you’re looking for!

http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/how-mentor-kid-bi...

Comment by Jen ML on March 24, 2016 at 03:07 AM

I loved reading this post - I don't know how I had missed it! The advantage is that by finding it now, I get to read all of the discussion!
Bonus! As both of my kids get bigger, I'm finding that how I support each of them is changing. Or, I should say, "How I *should* be supporting them." Reading your suggestions is just what I need - thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 16, 2016 at 06:32 PM

thank YOU! :")

Comment by Stacey Doss on September 16, 2016 at 09:29 AM

How would you incorporate PBL in this situation? I work full-time, my husband stays home. I'm the lesson planner and he prefers to be the room monitor, so I have to have daily plans made up that our son can work through semi-independently. I seek his input for topics for unit studies and try to incorporate projects that I think he'd be interested in but I'd like to give him more autonomy. I'm not present to plan as we go and my husband is very routine-oriented and somewhat house-bound so jumping up to run to the library, store or anywhere else on the spur of the moment is not an option. Since we are very busy with church and other activities and I'm out of the house 11 hours each weekday, it's hard for me to plan lessons and get folders ready each week so I tend to plan each unit ahead of time. I love the idea of PBL and think our son would get so much more out of school and enjoy it more if we could implement at least partially. Thank you for your help.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 16, 2016 at 06:38 PM

you could continue with your unit-based learning but leave one slot open for self-directed learning, and he could use that time to pursue whatever he likes. library research and purchasing supplies doesn’t have to happen spur-of-the-moment — it can be planned out. he can keep a list, work with a budget, and you can have a set time of the week for running those errands. library books at home last for weeks so one day a week to pick up and return works fine. you should be able to request books and then just pick them up so there doesn’t have to be a lot of looking through the shelves if you don’t have time for that.

then you could think about letting him have more input into the units — perhaps he wants to decide a specific thing he’d like to study within a larger requirement, then research what books and activities he could do to satisfy the requirements.

if everything goes well, you can slowly move toward more self-directed learning. for example, his project work might naturally check some of the items off your curriculum requirements, which frees up more time for self-chosen work. then instead of your researching and preparing units, you let him do the legwork and find a way to learn about, for example, game design or roman history or robotics or metalwork or whatever it is that catches his fancy. there are so many online resources now for a very wide variety of topics, from library ebooks to MOOCs to youtube videos and etc.

Post new comment