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Giving Children Control – Really

I have written several articles on the importance of giving children choices, teaching them responsibility, helping them to develop self-control and allowing them age-appropriate freedoms. In the same vein, I think it is important to discuss providing opportunities to kids wherein they have complete control over a situation. But, it apparently is harder than it seems. Here are some stories for you to consider.

We were at a megastore a few weekends back, that has several floors of retail items, a play area, a cafeteria, and other options for your enjoyment. My husband and I were sitting with our son eating lunch when I heard an exciting statement from a mother walking by. She said to her son (probably about seven), “You can choose where we sit”, as they looked out over the expanse of tables available in the eating area. Let me pause to say that the language was even play therapy based, specifically using the word ‘choose’. It was so refreshing! However, the excitement dissipated from there.

Her son set his tray down on a table close to where we were sitting, obviously having made his decision. She then asked, “You don’t want to sit over there?”, pointing to tables in another section. He looked at her, somewhat puzzled, I’m guessing because he had already chosen where he wanted to sit. He shrugged, and started walking over to the section that she suggested. As he approached a table, she asked, “Do you want to sit by the window so you can look at the cars?”, recommending that he change his mind again.

At this point, it was very clear that while she likely had good intentions, this mom was not able to fully give over control to her son to make the decision. Understandably, we get caught in the habit of making decisions for our children daily. We have to think about things that they don’t, like safety, belongings, obligations, and the like. It is our duty to do things for them, on their behalf, and in their place. However, there are times when it is arguably better if we don’t.

In this case, this boy was perfectly capable of deciding where they sit. It didn’t affect anyone in any way what table he chose. I believe the mother was thinking of reasons why his choices could have been better, such as ‘he likes looking outside’, or ‘this table is too close to where everyone walks’. I am sure that her suggestions were for his benefit. But what does that teach him?

First, it communicates that she doesn’t really trust him to make the decision, or think that he is capable to do so. Even if her comments were not about lack of trust or ability, it is perceived that way by the child. Second, it expresses that her words and actions are not congruent. The child hears her say, “you choose”, but her actions said, “you choose where I choose”. Finally, it teaches that he is not ultimately responsible for his actions, nor consequences. Had he chosen a place right where people walk, he may have on his own realized that next time he should sit somewhere further away. He was never given that option, so he did not learn to be held accountable for his choices.

This issue was extremely prominent in my work with families taking the Child-Parent Relationship Training course. The expectation is that the parent plays with their child for thirty minutes once a week, using the skills that they are learning. One of the techniques is that they are not in charge of anything during the play session (within reason, of course). The child can do anything they want, and the parent is an active observer. This was one of the biggest challenges for parents to embrace, because it is in our nature to take control.

I had one mom who would interfere with her child’s play to help him. In one instance, he was trying to get playdough into a baster, and he was struggling. She would naturally just take it from him, do it, and give it back to him. We discussed that he needed to do it himself, for many therapeutic reasons, and she still had a very difficult time letting go. She ended up having to sit on her hands during the sessions so he could truly be in charge.

Lesson learned, he always found a way to do what he needed, even if it was in a way that was different from the expected. She learned that giving children appropriate amounts of control in a safe environment helps them learn many skills. It also helps us as parents recognize that kids are extremely resourceful, capable and adaptable, all the while giving us some freedom from that responsibility that we can gladly give over to our kids.

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