September 10, 2015

Parents as Dictators

Try an experiment. Ask your kids how much control they feel they have over their lives. You may be surprised. Because our kids tend to be so privileged, we erroneously assume they feel in control of their lives. We mistakenly equate privilege with control. But the two are profoundly different.

Privilege means having lots of stuff.

Control means making your own choices.

As parents, we – our generation – seem allergic to ceding control over anything that matters in our kids’ lives. Is it because we parent anxiously in an anxious world? Is it because the stakes seem too high? As in, if they mess up in school or elsewhere, their future will go down the tubes? So we control their lives in order to make them better, to build a strong foundation, get them the skills and qualifications they’ll need in order to succeed in the world.

So we control what they eat, what extra-curriculars they do, we micro-manage their homework… and we try (oftimes unsuccessfully) to control their social lives too. Because we know what’s good for them.

But it isn’t.

Because until kids start making their own choices, they can’t grow up to be independent and resourceful. Every time I make a speech to parents, they ask me how to raise independent resourceful children. And the answer is always the same: Kids have to learn to be independent and resourceful. It takes lots of practice. Sometimes they learn more from failure than from success.

The irony is that the more we control their lives and prevent them from making their own choices, the less opportunity they have for that learning. Natural consequences are their best teachers.

At this time of year, the homework wars are a great place to begin.

We all hate the homework wars, and besides, do we really need to do Grade 4 math another three times? So take yourself off the homework assignments. Seriously: Give up homework. This is the most powerful tool for growing that independent resourceful child. Tell them (they’ll be in shock) what you’re doing and why: “It’s your life, and your homework. You’re in charge of it.”

If/when they mess up, believe me, the consequences are not going to determine whether they get into university. And they’ll learn more from messing up than from you doing their homework. The exception to this rule is kids with learning issues who genuinely need assistance. As for the others, help them if they ask for your help. Tell them that too.

The child who owns responsibility for homework will become the young adult who copes with 1st year university better. The child who’s given the space and autonomy to make lot of other choices will be the adolescent who makes safer choices about the minefield of drugs, alcohol and sex.

Autonomy makes children feel heard and respected. And deeply loved – because love feels more unconditional when we respect their choices.



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