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The alternative to controlling my children

By the second week of vacation, I had long given up on sleeping in – much less sleeping through the night. Up at 6:00 am one morning, I just needed to keep our one-year-old occupied for an hour while my wife’s family slept.

How hard could that be?

He banged everything he could find on the kitchen floor, hollered through breakfast, and whined as I bounced him around the house in my arms.

“Shhh! Shhh!” I said to him over and over again, as if that would make a difference.

I panicked. What should I do with him?

I let him slap at the large mirror in the dining room, held his hands as he wobbled on his unsteady legs, and held him upside down. Everything resulted in loud noises and more shushing.

It just wasn’t my morning. When a baby needs sleep, there’s no replacing it.

By the time I handed him over to my wife, I realized that I’d let myself become extremely stressed out. Mind you, this is our second born, and I spend quite a bit of time at home with our kids during the week. I’m not the bumbling greeting card dad who can’t figure out where to stick the bottle when the baby’s crying.

Still, I frequently make the mistake of trying to control my kids, especially when there’s no chance of ever winning. A tired baby is destined to cry for the first hour of the day. I gave in to anxiety because I couldn’t control the amount of noise he made.

Isn’t control one of the main battles throughout all of parenthood? It sure felt like that when I was a teenager and young adult.

When I was in high school, I wanted to attend a youth group at a Baptist church, and my Catholic mother tried to stop me – I went anyway, and eventually attended seminary.

When I was in my final year of college, I fell head over heels in love with a girl, and my dad said I should focus on my career instead of marriage – we got engaged a few months, later and have been happily married ever since.

As their grips tightened over my life choices, I slipped away from them for a season (before reconciling a few years later). I don’t think they anticipated that their attempts to control my faith and relationships would result in me shutting them out of those parts of my life and choosing my own path without their input.

If a teenager finds life with God through a youth group Bible study instead of high church liturgy, there’s nothing a parent can do to change that.

If a college student thinks he’s found the one, a parent can’t stop the sparks of that relationship, especially from 660 miles away.

Now, as a father to young children, I feel smaller gaps emerging each time I try to control them beyond the bounds of reason: “Drink your water now!” “Share with your brother!” “Stop nagging me!” I can relate to my parents a little bit more each day as I navigate conflict and my own control issues with our boys. I want to dictate what’s best, rather than starting where they are.

And if a baby is sleep deprived, there’s nothing a parent can do to minimize the noise of an unhappy child. If our one-year-old woke up the rest of the house during vacation, it wasn’t from my lack of trying. My anxiety and attempts at controlling his behavior certainly didn’t make things better.

CONTROLLING_CHILDRENPhoto by Richard Masoner

A few days later, we were home, and the kids were sleep deprived from the drive the day before. Neither of our kids slept well in the car. We put the one-year-old to bed early, but he was still over-tired—screaming and arching his body as I held him.

I felt the anxiety coming over me, shouting in my head: “You need to make him quiet now! He’ll wake up his brother in the next room! What if your neighbor goes to bed early?! Hurry! Make him quiet!”

As I struggled to pray about this, I suddenly had a picture in my mind that I was a sponge, absorbing his sadness rather than fighting or controlling it. I tried to let his sadness pass through me rather than wringing it out of him.

I watched him cry, red-faced and waving his fists, as I rocked him. He passed from sleep, to crying, back to sleep, and then back to crying. All the while I gently whispered, “Shhhhhh” to him, rather than the demanding “Shh!” of vacation.

After a few minutes of crying and writhing from side to side in his crib, he drifted off to sleep with his arms stretched over his head. His chest lifted up and down ever so slightly as his exhaustion slipped away into the quiet of sleep.

I shuffled out of the room, tired but finally at peace with my child and, at least for a moment, with myself.

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  1. Tina

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Dee B

    This is a wonderful post. I’m not a terribly controlling parent; in fact, I probably skew the other way and get sidelong glances from some of our friends who insist that their kids do X or be Y. My 13-year old has long hair, does not have the best diet (despite my offerings), and maybe watches more TV on his Kindle than some his friends. But he’s also so affectionate to me (even in public), still plays with Legos, and brought a stuffed animal along on our recent vacation. I don’t want anyone telling me who to be and I guess it’s the same with kids at any age. Sounds like you have (or are getting) a good handle on things.

  3. J. Marie Weldon

    This is a wonderful post. My girls are now 5 and 7, and I can attest to what you’re saying. Ramping up the frustration already present is just fueling an aggression fire anyway. Your post is right in line with some of the great things I’ve been learning from Gordon Neufeld and the Neufeld Institute courses/faculty. I’ve already previewed the theory for the “Heart Matters: What to Do with a Child’s Emotions” course that starts in October. Phenomenal stuff.

  4. Kariane

    I think we all dislike feeling like we’re being controlled. I know it rankles my kids and me (though as a parent I still often find myself trying to control things — some of necessity, but not all).

    Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Renita

    I tried controlling my eldest, it didn’t turn out well. I monitored every text, every social media interaction, EVERYTHING! I thought I was being a good parent. She rebelled, created secret accounts, learned to be sneaky and concluded that I didn’t trust her to live her life. It was a difficult time. I learned to let go and guide, rather than force. I trust she will make the right decisions, I’d she doesn’t. She will learn. That’s after all what life is about, right?

  6. Mary P

    Years ago, I worked with mentally handicapped adults, and one of the big rules was that we were not to try to control them. A lot of the same principles are just as important with children, although there are times, especially with toddlers, that you do need to control them. The biggest thing is to change your mindset to guiding them instead. If they are frustrated, give them an opportunity to decompress instead of escalating the situation. Wait until they calm down and then give them choices (not too many!) or distractions (or avoid the frustration in the first place). Treat them with the same respect you would want if you were in their shoes – even toddlers! It is amazing how much difference changing your mindset makes.

  7. Jennifer

    This is such a great post. I have learned that at those times when I have the urge or desperation to control my little guy, that is when I need to practice more SELF-control. Works so much better.

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