View from the Control Tower
When Does Being a Guiding Parent Become Being a Bully?
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
It’s always been a dirty word in my family. Control. As in “Don’t be so controlling.” “What is she, a control freak?” “Well, you know how she likes to control things.”
As a clan, we condemn such behavior — but we also embody it. I come from a matriarchal flock of females who … let’s just say, we’re all really comfortable with our hands on the tiller. In my family, you’re either calling the shots and being chided for it, or you’re resentfully carrying out someone else’s capricious edicts and making snarky comments about her intolerable bossiness.
Control-or-be-controlled! Steer-or-be-steered! It’s the way we Roshells roll, and I don’t much mind it. The truth is I’m happy sitting in the saddle and I can’t really help it if the world works better when I’ve got the reins, now can I?
When it unnerves me, though—when my admittedly despotic disposition seems more exacting than endearing—is when it flops over onto my parenting. Rather, ahem, when my kids call me on it.
I recently put the kibosh on a family outing because my progeny were behaving like orangutans on espresso. Warnings didn’t work. Pleadings didn’t work. So I nixed our plans and picked up a magazine instead, settling into the sofa for the night. I wasn’t trying to punish my adorable little barbarians; I just couldn’t conceive of strapping myself into a compact car with them for any duration whatsoever.
They were disappointed, and soon the pouting four-year-old came marching through the room banging a drum and chanting, “They’re just trying to control us, they’re just trying to control us …”
Looking back, it may have been one of the funnier things I’ve seen. Ever. But at the time, it rattled me.
That dirty word again. But vying for control over assertive aunts and sassy sisters is sport; wielding it against your kids feels kind of sick. And potentially toxic.
I don’t want to be that mom. The bully mom. The one who thinks she’s carefully and invisibly guiding her children toward adulthood when in fact she’s dragging and shoving and badgering them toward it—so they can run like hell to get away from her once they’re there.
Still, isn’t it our job to control them a little bit? Aren’t there moments—and even broad because-I-said-so areas—where parental control is appropriate? Street-crossing: yes. Friend-choosing: no. Telephone manners, dessert portions, party attire: Um … ? How do you know when issuing rules and censuring misdeeds is imparting an important lesson—and when it’s just being a bossy tyrant whose children will write autobiographical screenplays and cast her as the repugnant villain?
Sometimes it feels like 99 percent of parenting is manipulation. Control. We’re forever trying to get our kids to behave in certain ways, react in certain ways, even think in certain ways. The right ways. The considerate and responsible and confident ways. We can do that with base threats or only slightly less desperate bribery, or we can do it with righteous modeling and active listening and other things I suck at.
Ultimately, though, it’s all controlling. In the end, on a fizzled evening when no one’s particularly pleased with the family members they were dealt, our preschoolers will still come stomping through our living rooms in protest, throwing around that dirty word as if he knows it’ll fully freak us out.
Do you know what happened when I stopped panicking long enough to ask my son why he would say such a thing? He told me his older brother made him do it. Made him. As in climbed into the saddle of that vexing situation, commandeered those coveted reins, and ordered his poor brother to giddyup.
What can I say? It’s hereditary.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Keep Your Skirt On.