Our Kids Can Thrive And It Begins With Less Control

Life

Perched on tippy toes my little man peruses the cookie selection and makes his choice. We enjoy our sweet stash in our favourite blue cafe as we enthusiastically discuss dinosaurs, bugs and the underestimated pleasure of choc chips.

As we finish, my fearless leader guides me on an adventure down the hill and over the green to the waterfront. Offering to hold his hand down the stairs, I’m met with the cutest rejection ever, “No Mama, I’m leading the way”. His growing independence breaks my heart while simultaneously filling me with maternal pride on a daily basis.

Around the corner we arrive at the greatest miracle of all: an empty playground. I revel in the serenity of having it to ourselves although I know it won’t last long. Within minutes, a crew of eight energetic toddlers arrive on the scene. Physically connected by a long harness, their experienced carer unravels them as they huddle in a circle for a pre-play pep talk.

I can’t help overhearing the mantra being repeated; “Climb UP the stairs, go DOWN the slide!”.

The kids play for twenty minutes and my son joins their pint-size clan playing tag; expending seemingly limitless three-year-old energy. Their carer is run ragged wiping noses, offering reassurance and trying to keep everyone safe. I don’t envy her job; for me, keeping up with one child is challenging enough.

I observe her puzzled expression as I high-five my son after he climbs up the slide breaking the “rules” she has set for her tiny tribe. All of a sudden I hear a whistle blow and as if a switch has been flicked, each child stops in their tracks, sprinting back  to their carer. Play time is over. She reconnects the harness and as swiftly as they arrived, they vanish as she leads them up the hill.

Peace returns and I contemplate what I’ve just witnessed. I’m gobsmacked. I can’t believe how quickly and obediently the spirited children froze, dutifully returning to their ringleader as if it were a well-practiced military operation. My son willingly concedes to my requests but our relationship is a two-way street; full of mutual respect, passionate negotiation and inevitable compromise.

My life would undoubtedly be easier if he was blindly submissive, but striving for it has never been my aim.

My perspective is obviously skewed by my own experience yet I can’t help noticing how the interaction made me feel: a hint of sadness as I wonder if their young spirits may have been slightly broken in the training process. While I appreciate the carer’s rules made it safer to simultaneously manage so many kids, I reflect on research I did for a recent post suggesting anxiety is on the rise as modern kids are losing their sense of internal control.

As it turns out, this cultural shift is one of the greatest threats to our children’s ability to achieve long term happiness. It erodes individualism, undermines decision making abilities and predisposes children to mental and emotional health issues. The scientific term used to describe this phenomenon is locus of control; simply referring to whether a person feels they have control over their own lives (internal locus of control) or whether they believe their life is controlled by outside forces (external locus of control).

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, evaluated results from a questionnaire called the Children’s Nowicki-Stricklund Internal-External Control Scale from the 1960’s through to 2002. She discovered an alarming move away from an internal towards an external locus of control in children of all ages with the trend being even more pronounced in younger children.

Why is this a concern? Because children with a bias towards externality are more likely to focus on goals such as materialism and status, rather than pursuing intrinsic aims which bring true and lasting happiness. They experience a sense of helplessness, decreased self-control, and a predisposition to narcissism, anxiety and depression. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, believes the decline of free play is largely responsible; after all, play is the only part of a child’s world in which they’re freely able to express their control.

But, it’s not only what we removed from children’s lives, it’s what we replaced it with: an unhealthy level of adult control.

Testing boundaries and finding their limits gives children a sense of accomplishment, yet as parents we’re constantly concerned with keeping them physically safe. In our fear-driven world, we attempt to stay one step ahead of young children who seem preoccupied with revealing danger, so we can ensure they make it to their next birthday.

But, in our heroic attempts to keep our kids physically safe, are we sacrificing their mental and emotional health? Have we created a world that is so sanitized, so orderly, controlled by bells and whistles, rules and schedules, that we’ve forgotten the value of what it means to be wild and free? Are we unconsciously sabotaging our children’s happiness?

I think labelling people’s behaviour can be counterproductive, so I’ve never liked the label “helicopter parent”, which describes parents who hover over their child’s every move. But, I’m beginning to appreciate it’s relevance as it extends beyond the playground and permeates every aspect of our children’s lives.

I believe we’ve become helicopter parents because we live in a helicopter society.

A society that tells us kids need discipline and structure. A society that suggests we can’t trust our babies to let us know when they’re hungry, tired or need comfort. A society that claims babies have the ability to manipulate us. A society that encourages us to believe parenting “experts” rather than our own instincts.

In short, a helicopter society pressures us to conform, to bury our instincts and instead follow a misguided rulebook, while quietly undermining our parenting confidence. But, perhaps most dangerously, it communicates to children that they’re incapable of knowing what they, themselves, need.

So, it’s no surprise our children feel they’re not in control of their own lives, because by and large, they’re not. And if we buy what society is selling, going against what young minds need in order to flourish, our kids pay the price. This new understanding has had a profound effect on my consciousness as a parent; I reflect on the level of control my son has over his own life and I endeavour to give him as much as I can within the bounds of safety and practicality. So, I’ll let my son climb up the slide, but more importantly, we’ll continue to deep dive into wild and natural places which are infinitely more appropriate for testing and stretching the limits of young minds and bodies, than any manmade playground.

Our children are wild things; they’re innocent, curious little creatures who need our guidance, but not our overarching control. If we can turn a blind eye to society’s judgments, smile as we join our kids climbing up the slide and trust our innate instincts the future is bright for our children. Because what they need is simple; time, freedom, respect, unconditional love, honesty and authenticity. Kids are resilient; they don’t need perfect parents, there’s no such thing.

What they need are brave guides willing to advocate for their needs, to go against the grain of society in order to go with the grain of natural childhood.

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COMMENTS
  • October 11, 2016
    M

    Your post hit home. Today I reflected how my interaction with my daughter had been as time keeper (wake up, go to school, clean, eat dinner, etc); this realisation made me feel terrible and sad. I don’t know how to fix this but being a timekeeper and trying to control doesn’t feel good. Ideas, tips? Welcome

    • October 11, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you M and I’m happy you enjoyed it. But, don’t feel bad! We can only make the best decisions with the information we have at the time. When we get new information we can make new decisions but don’t beat yourself up. That’s how I approach things anyway. And for ideas – yes – I am planning a post on that in the next couple of weeks. But I think it’s going to be different for everyone – as you go through your day see if there are choices you can offer your child, to give her a sense of power over her own life. What she wears, eats etc. Try to give yourself more time to do things so that you have time for your daughter to take charge, to lead the way. And play, play, play and let her be the boss. Hope that helps and I’ll let you know when I have a post written xx

  • October 11, 2016
    Grainne Ford

    I thought this was an excellent piece and it certainly made me think. Just today I was in the playground with my very spirited 3.5 year old who is always keen to run up with slide! She looks at me waiting for the telling off as she gets to half way and as usual I say No don’t run up the slide. She asks why and I struggle to remember the reason why! So I say it’s not nice to make it dirty for children who want to slide down it… she says well their Mummy & Daddy can just wash their clothes ! I couldn’t think of anything else to say! My 3.5 year old is right- what’s the big deal! I think as parents we are so wrapped up to have the politest well behaved child we forget children just need to be children. As long as they are kind what’s the big deal! Thank you this article has really made me think. I had a lovely free Irish childhood running outside all day but sadly those days are gone but we must still ensure our children have as much freedom & choice as we can give them in our angst filled world xx

    • October 11, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Grainne – I’m so happy you enjoyed it and that it was thought provoking. For me, writing these pieces is thought provoking too and makes me search deep for my own truth which can sometimes be hidden. Good on you for going with climbing up the slide. I read an article recently (I must dig it out) which described a study in which preschoolers and adults were given the same problem to solve. Adults solved it in the way they thought they were “supposed” to. But preschoolers came up with all sorts of different, ingenious and “better” ways of solving it. Maybe slides are more fun to climb up than to go down 🙂 So, let’s let kids climb up the slide, as long as it’s not hurting anyone, where is the harm hey?

  • October 11, 2016
    Jade

    Thank you for this blog Tracy. It’s just the reassurance I needed. I have a very energetic and high spirited 4 year old. I have been feeling the external pressures to get his wild antics ‘under control’
    After reading this post I feel more confident to listen to my instincts and allow him to be as wild and enthusiastic as he needs.
    Thank you for holding a space and allowing parents to listen to their instincts and be the word of wisdom so many parents need.

    • October 11, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      My pleasure Jade and thank you for your lovely comment and for reading. I’m so happy it resonated with you and gave you some confidence to be wild and free with your little boy. I too, have a very spirited little man. They are unstoppable and I think that’s the point – we’re not meant to. Have fun and trust your instincts – they will never steer you wrong. xx

  • October 12, 2016

    I just found your blog through Happiness Is Here… wow! I love it. Thanks for your thoughtful and well-written posts on positive parenting. I’m definitely the odd one out when discussing parenting and “discipline” with any group of fellow parents (or even non-parents). But I see all the wonderful ways that my daughter, and the relationship between my daughter and I, benefit by approaching parenting as a respectful family partnership, rather than a dictatorship!

  • October 14, 2016
    Rushana

    Tracy, I overall 100% agree with your take on control when it comes to kids. But if you have more than one child with you (especially) outdoors, then I can kind of understand that lady with military style trained kids. That’s her survival strategy. Because imagune, you are looking after 6 kids and they all have their own freedom and will as to when they want to leave the playground. What will happen is you will never be able to leave. With that many children and only one adult that could be almist the only way to survive as a carer.. sadly..

    • October 14, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Couldn’t agree more Rushana which is why I mentioned I didn’t envy her job and how I appreciate with so many kids to manage it’s a necessity for safety. It may not have come across properly though – so hard sometimes to convey these things. Totally sympathise with the carer’s mammoth task and it makes me think the issue is more that she shouldn’t have so many kids to manage – it’s too big an ask. If we have to resort to military style tactics I think that’s just a symptom of a deeper issue. Thanks so much for reading and bringing up this important point.

  • October 14, 2016
    Emily

    It’s sad how few kids even use playgrounds anymore–almost every time I drive past one, it’s completely deserted. When I was a kid, everyone climbed up the slides and had fun! 🙂 Maybe it’s because there were fewer ways for kids to zone out with technology? Anyway, great article! 🙂

    • October 20, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Emily and so true. Our son isn’t in preschool but most other kids are – and it was daycare before that so it makes it hard even to meet up with friends. Kids time is so accounted for these days. Even a play at the playground is timed to precision to get to the next activity. Life is busy – it’s hard to balance everything but our kids also need what they need and that’s time to play. Thanks for reading!

  • December 19, 2016

    I agree with your comment above – a lack of unscheduled time is a big contributor to this issue.
    It’s great the carer makes the effort to take the kids to the park, but if that’s the only way they get to experience they are really missing out.
    If you are interested in these sort of issues and more of the type of research about the longer term impacts on kids, I highly recommend “Under Pressure: How the epidemic of hyper parenting is endangering childhood” by Carl Honore.
    My son is definitely in the up the slide camp – it took him ages to “get” stairs or ladders, but nothing was going to stop him sliding.
    Amy@MoreTimeThanMoney recently posted…How to slow down when you’re busy

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