Monday, April 16, 2012

The illusion of control

You don't have it, and you're fooling yourself if you think you do.

Take children. As parents we spend so much time and effort over them when they are infants that we buy into the illusion that we have some control over their lives. I mean, if I can control what they wear, where they go, what they eat, and whether they have clean diapers or not, I have control, right?

Wrong. You don't control anything. The older they get, the more they try to teach you this, but you don't want to learn because that would be terrifying. Socks are a good example. As soon as your child is able -- a few months after birth -- she (I raised girls but boys are just as bad or worse) will start pulling off socks. She doesn't have the motor skills yet to put on different ones, but she will certainly take off the socks you carefully chose. Over and over and over.

The lesson is there to be learned, but you just laugh and put them back on her. As parents, one of the great advantages of putting shoes on your child is that now, finally, she will be unable to remove her socks. Until, of course, she learns to remove her shoes, to put them on the wrong feet, to hide them under the couch, to drop them in the toilet. Then she will scamper delightedly barefoot around the house and you will die just a little bit in your heart of hearts because you don't have control over your child.

Then comes the day when she picks out her own socks. Matching? Of course not. Different colors, different patterns, delightfully different textures. You carefully explain how the world works: "No, sweetie, these don't match. Let's find a match for this one, and look! These beautiful yellow ones match your outfit!" No, she pulls them off and chooses the plaid red and green Christmas sock for her left foot and the fuzzy penguin sock for her right foot.

Parents, be careful at this point. You will do something next that guarantees trouble in the future. You will browbeat your child (oh, so gently, but you do this because "I am the parent and I know best"), teaching her about fashion, about matching socks, and the absolute tyranny of color coordination. This is Just The Way The World Works, you think, and you believe you are doing a good job of teaching your child about reality. NOTE for parents who are feeling smug at this point because they have not browbeaten their children in this way: You do exactly the same thing, only you do it with eating your broccoli, or waiting in line or not interrupting, or something. You force your child to adapt to the Rules of How The World Works in some fashion. Realistically, this is good and necessary -- and we could go into a long scriptural diversion here in Galatians 3 about the Law being our custodian to bring us to Christ, and that would be fun but we won't go there right now -- but it is also damaging and destructive. You can't do this without causing damage. That's not the point at the moment. The point at the moment is that in doing this, you teach yourself, as a parent, that you are in control of your child. It's an outright lie, but you come to believe it.

Let's move on to where this becomes really dangerous.

You feel a tremendous responsibility as a parent to keep your child safe. You baby-proof your house when she starts crawling. You put plugs in the outlets, safety latches on the cleaning supply cabinet. You get rid of every five gallon bucket and maybe even put safety latches on the toilet seat for fear of your child drowning. Good for you. You are a responsible parent. The problem comes when you start to blur the line between being responsible for your child and being in control of your child. Yes, you're responsible for your child's safety. This means that the latch on the toilet seat might be a good idea. But you are not in control of your child's safety, not ever. Control is simply beyond you.

Trouble is, responsibility and control look the same for many years. They start to diverge as a child begins to take risks. (Some children begin this behavior at about six months of age. Others wait until you're complacent and spring it on you later.) It's tempting to try to control the risk factors. You want to pad the sharp corners and put up guardrails on the edges of the cliffs. Only safety scissors in our house, thank you very much. Put the knives out of reach. Responsibility begins in subtle ways to look like control. "Don't do that -- it's not safe!" becomes a mantra.

Inconvenient Truth: Your child is designed for unsafe behavior.

Corollary: If you protect your child too much in order to guarantee a safe life, at some point you will prevent your child from experiencing a full life. Safety and fullness of life eventually become mutually exclusive.

Unsafe behaviors children will automatically engage in include eating (they might choke), playing (an activity full of hazards), breathing (see "eating"), learning (requires moving beyond the tried & true safe behaviors), loving (every relationship is risky), growing (ever heard of "growing pains"?), and the like. Every one of these activities requires your child to move beyond guaranteed safety, beyond your control. From the moment they emerge from the womb -- and quite possibly earlier -- children are designed to explore and interact with and influence the world around them. It's how God created them. It's part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Curiosity, exploration, relationship, influence -- all these things are part of God's good creation.

Your job as a parent is to set appropriate boundaries that give your child enough territory to explore, within safe limits. Brace yourself now -- because your child's job is to test those limits, over and over and over. It's what they're supposed to do. And when they cross those boundaries, your child is supposed to receive consequences. Not punishment, but consequences. (The book Setting Limits is the best summary of this idea I've ever read.) Best case scenario is that you don't have to dispense consequences, but your child just experiences them as the natural consequence of crossing a boundary. Your word about boundaries (you did warn your child, didn't you?) is thus proved truthful, and the unpleasant nature of the world as a place with consequences is firmly planted in your child's mind.

Why is this so important? Because you want your child to know two things: How to take risks, and how to take them appropriately, with an eye to the potential consequences. If she doesn't take risks, her life will be bland and meaningless. If she doesn't know consequences, she will go off like a loose cannon, damaging herself and everyone within range.

My girls are 17 and 20. I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of each of them. One of the things I'm most excited about is that I see each of them stepping out into the world, taking appropriate risks, challenging the limits, reaching beyond what's safe to try new things. How incredibly exciting! Do they get into some trouble? Of course they do. They get hurt. They get disappointed. They fail. And they fly. Julie and I worked so hard to find appropriate boundaries and provide appropriate consequences when they were younger. Today those agonizing years of setting limits are bearing good fruit, and we get to cheer for them from the sidelines instead of fighting to stay in control.

Fact is, we never had control. Most of the time we remembered that, but sometimes we gave into the temptation to manipulate, to manage, to stifle. Our illusion of control just bred rebellion. Appropriate limits created healthy independence and wisdom. Erica still doesn't like to wear matching socks, and Teya will still look long and hard at the potential consequences before she decides if she wants to obey the rules or not. What I think is the most beautiful thing about each of them is that they know, in their own way, how to put themselves on the line -- how to put themselves at risk -- in appropriate ways.

Now that you've read this far, remember something: Parenting was only an example. Fact is, you don't have control over yourself, either. Not in the important ways. (Think about your heartbeat, or your liver function.) So how do you live? Scrambling for control is about fear. Living with appropriate risk is about trust and wisdom. Are you willing to put yourself on the line? Or do you have to control the outcomes?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jeff! ABSOLUTELY right on the mark!