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Parenting and the illusion of control

Matt Gross, writing at The New York Times about how much we should or should not try to control our kids:

I understand the desire to coax your children to think and live as you do. I mean, who wants his or her progeny to reject wholesale the values, tastes and beliefs they’ve been brought up in? To pick up ideas, frameworks and plans that we disagree with or even find morally repugnant? I’m surely hoping that Sasha and her 9-year-old sister, Sandy, follow in my metaphysical footsteps, in one way or another. Ideally, they’ll grow up to be polyglot globe-trotters with predilections for spicy food, subtly funky fashion and making new friends. But as long as they don’t end up greedy, selfish or the leader of a fascist personality cult (I’m looking at you, Sandy), Jean and I will be satisfied.

To me, the more hands-off approach is also the more realistic one. It acknowledges that our children are, in some basic sense, beyond our control: not precious innocents to be culturally cocooned, but thinking, feeling, increasingly independent human beings who are busy making up their own minds (and who are anyhow likely carrying around devices that give them unfettered access to billions of ideas and images, without any meaningful controls).

I wish that people who write pieces like this about parenting would spend a bit more time (or any time, in some cases…) acknowledging that different kids have different needs and not every parenting strategy or approach is going to work for every parent/kid combination.

That issue aside, the tension between hands-off and control is a feeling that I experience nearly every day as a parent, and I think Gross’s suggestion that kids are beyond our control is pretty accurate.

When I’m driving on the freeway at sixty miles an hour in heavy traffic, I think that I am in control, but it’s an illusion. At any moment, something could go wrong or any one of the other drivers around me could make a mistake or a bad judgement, and I would suddenly discover that I have pretty much no control at all.

With my kids, I’m not sure the situation is all that much different. I may think I have authority and control over them, but treating them that way by default only sets us up for disaster when they inevitably figure out that it is all smoke and mirrors. They are not even that old, and they have already figured that out anyway.

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