Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Controlling and Parenting and Telling the Difference


A friend asked me a great question the other day. How do you tell the difference between being controlling and parenting?  In setting a limit with a child or responding “no” to a request, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line?  Are you parenting or attempting to control?  When your child asks for a cell phone, is your “no” discipline or controlling behavior?

Why is this Important?
How does understanding where you might be controlling make a difference?  When your goal is controlling, you not only influence the other person you are attempting to control but you limit yourself as well.  You are not as flexible, creative or serene.  You act controlling, the other person reacts to your behavior and your relationship takes a hit.  Your children may feel that you don’t trust them or your spouse may feel that you think he is incompetent.  You also spend a tremendous amount of energy engaged in a behavior that doesn’t offer much satisfaction when you could be feeling much more joy.     

Examine Where You Felt Controlled
One of the best places to begin the search for clarity is in examining where you felt controlled as a child.  I realized that when I felt controlled as a child, it was more about not feeling heard than about what my parents had actually said.  There was no dialogue or expression of feelings.  There was no listening ear on the other side, and it did feel like sides had been drawn.  When the polarities of your way and my way exist, there is most likely some controlling behavior happening.  That is the time to take a breath and look for the third alternative, a resolution that you both are happy with.     

Measure the Joy
In her recent post on Tiny Buddha entitled Control Less, Trust More, Susanne van Borcke said about her family, “I tried to control every aspect of their lives. Whether it was the lunches that needed to be made with a specific type of bread, or the homework having to be done at this time of the day, or the decision of which movie to watch, I told them how to do it and had a hard time letting them make their own choices.  I was hardly ever wrong—at least I didn’t think so. I thought control equals security equals happiness, up until the day when I took a close look at my life and found that nobody around me was smiling anymore.  They were miserable. They lit up when their Dad came home because he did things with them that were fun and, best of all they never knew what would happen with him. With me they could foresee everything, and the routines were never fun or joyful.”

Measure the joy, yours as well as the joy of others in your family.  Are the smiles gone, including yours? 

Consider the Feedback from Others
What is the feedback you receive from your family members about being controlling?  When my daughter said to me, “Can’t you even let me get out of bed before you start giving me things to do?” I became conscious of how I had been pressuring her.  I thought, “Is this what I want her to think life is about?  Is this what I think life is about?  We have time to get everything done.  Let’s begin the day with the joy of being together.”  I began controlling less and trusting more!

Susanne van Borcke gave her son a signal to use.  She said, “We’ve agreed on a code word that’s the last name of a famous soccer player. The deal is that he will only say this word when he feels I am being overly controlling. This will prompt me to think about my intentions, and then back off if I realize it’s not in his best interest.” 

Listen without Judging
When you truly listen and are present, your response is said from a place of power rather than of force.  You are not attached to the outcome. You listen with empathy and drop judgments.  If you are fearful about agreeing with your child or if in agreeing, you envision a future that you do not desire, you are attached to the outcome.  As Dr. David R. Hawkins said in Power vs. Force, “[when you are not attached then] not getting one’s way is no longer experienced as defeating, frightening, or frustrating.”  There is no power struggle, no force, and no sides drawn up.  You don’t feel compelled to say “no” to win. 

Our family moved from St. Louis back to Florida when my brother was in college.  He wanted to remain at Washington University in St. Louis where he was settled, had friends and was in a fraternity.  My parents nixed that idea.  Their view was that he was not interested in academics and just wanted to have a good time, an expensive good time.  His view was that he felt a sense of belonging and wanted to continue.  My parents felt scared, and they did not put their apprehension about his lack of responsibility on the table, so their fears became the driving influence in their decision.  My brother did not feel heard, and he felt judged.  He could feel the lack of trust even though it was not discussed. 

With twenty-twenty hindsight, my parents could have acknowledged both my brother’s feelings and their own.  Their response could have begun something like, “Moving is not what you would like to do.  It is painful to leave your friends, and you feel at home here.”  The conversation could have then taken several different approaches, such as:
  • “Paying out-of-state tuition is not in our budget.  We are willing to pay the in-state rate.  One option is for you to get a job to earn the money to pay the difference.  Are you willing to do that to stay in school at Washington University?”
  • “We are willing for you stay in school in St. Louis as long as you maintain at least a 3.0 average.  Are you willing to commit to maintaining a 3.0 with the agreement that you will move to Florida if your average drops below a 3.0 for more than one semester?”
  • “We feel uncomfortable with our family living so far apart in different states.  We don’t feel ready to move without you.  We would support you in going to school at one of the state universities that you choose in Florida.  We are also willing to discuss a trip to St. Louis so that you can visit your friends.”   
What is Your Intention in the Limit?
As a parent, you provide limits.  You keep your child safe when she is young.  You set boundaries with your older children that expand as they become more responsible.  Check out your intention in the limit that you are setting.  Is it in your child’s best interest?  What will he learn if you agreed with him?  If your goal is to make your child do something or make him stop doing something, there is probably a controlling aspect to what is happening. 

If your child asks “why” in response to your limit and you cannot give a thoughtful answer, take some time to explore beyond “because I said so.”  If you are envisioning a future that you do not desire – such as thinking that the result of giving your daughter a cell phone is that she will hook up with “the wrong people” – consider the future that you DO desire and the chances for learning your child will have.  Having a cell phone will allow her to hook up with her friends, “the right people”.  She will have wider social experiences.  She will become more technologically savvy.  She will contact YOU more.  She will feel trusted by you.  You will still be there along the way to continue the dialogue, monitor her learning and revise your approach so that she becomes even more responsible.   

Be Allowing over Controlling 
Dr. Hawkins suggested that allowing is much more powerful than controlling.  Allowing doesn’t mean being a permissive parent.  It means what Susanne suggested, trusting more and controlling less. 

Susanne’s plan is to create a list of things that she enjoys doing and do them.  She said, “One of those things will be sitting still – not doing things, and for sure not multitasking. It involves listening and just being with my feelings of sadness, boredom, and all the others I have bottled up and hid behind activity.”

In The Quest Retreat, an annual course through Your Infinite Life Training andCoaching Company, I learned a practice that has been very helpful.  Take a purposeful walk or spend some quiet time in which you notice your thoughts.  Whenever a controlling thought surfaces, simply say “cancel” in your mind.  Do not judge the thought.  Do not analyze the thought.  Simply notice and say “cancel.”  This practice can make a tremendous difference.

You will notice that in being allowing you will feel more serene and you will also have a soothing influence on those around you.  By allowing, you welcome the joy.

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