A parent's job is not to control children


Our horns were locked, my six year old and I. Once again we were fighting over food. I wanted her to just try the lentil soup. “I know you’d like it,” I cajoled, on edge. She physically turned away from the table. She’d said no and now she was flatly refusing to engage.

I knew I was feeling triggered but I didn’t have the capacity in that moment to work out why. Instead, I snapped. She cried. I shouted and instantly regretted abusing my power over her.

Not until later did I work out why things had played out as they had – why I’d parented against the way I wanted to.

Children do not need us to control them. They need our support, at times our guidance and, always, our empathy but control does not factor in a healthy relationship with anyone.

Yet parenting and control are often discussed as if they’re synonymous. Dissociating them can be really difficult to do, even if you want to.

Before we can change what we do, we need to address why we do it.

Reflecting on my own parenting practice, I’ve gathered a few questions that we as parent allies can ask ourselves when we find we’re slipping into controlling behaviour. Perhaps you can think of a few more to add too.

Do I feel out of control myself?

Hands down, the number one reason I find myself trying to control my children is that I feel somehow out of control myself. Perhaps my internal resources are running low. That could mean I feel lonely or “hangry” or even in need of a wee.

Hitting pause to check on myself before I respond to a situation I’m finding challenging can be really helpful. If I can do it while drinking a glass of water, even better.

Looking after ourselves is vital in helping us to remain calm and to appropriately assess what’s happening. That could mean taking big steps like seeking counselling or smaller ones like going to bed an hour early. Check out the parent allies post on self-care for more ideas.

Is this scenario triggering a childhood memory for me?

I reckon this is actually a big obstacle for a lot of us, especially when our children appear defiant. Something inside us cries out that it’s not fair that they get to do things we did not when we were their age.

Certainly, for me, this is when my inner voice is most likely to scream, “I am the parent, you are the child!” even though I don’t believe this means that I have the right to exert force over them.

Perhaps we’ve asked them to clean up their toys and they’ve said no. Rather than taking the time to work out what’s really going on, we become overwhelmed by the perceived injustice of the situation. Maybe we even mutter, “I would never have spoken to my parents that way.”

What we need to remember here, though, is that this trigger is all about us. We need to find ways to address the burden of our own childhoods or we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid recreating authoritarian patterns.

A parent's job is not to control childrenPhoto by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Am I worried about what others think of me?

Having an audience raises the pressure in any situation. Eyes on you while your child is having a meltdown or refusing to put their shoes on so you can leave add a layer of judgement, whether real or perceived.

I find this particularly difficult to navigate with grandparents present because I want them to see me as a good parent. I find myself double guessing what they think I should be doing while also trying to work out what I actually should be doing.

Sometimes this means losing sight of what my child needs in the moment and choosing to be punitive because it’s the easy option.

Am I fearful for my child’s future?

Choosing to be authoritarian is so often about trying to manage fear. Worry characterises the parenting experience on some level for all of us. I’m not dismissing that.

We love our kids so much and want the best for them both now and in the future. Each of us has ideas about what this means and it’s frightening to realise that a lot is outside of our control.

One of my big fears is that they’ll grow up with narrow diets. It’s pretty unfounded since I too was a selective eater as a child but will eat most things as an adult. That doesn’t stop me from sometimes recreating scenarios like the one I described above because it is a real fear of mine.

Like childhood triggers, though, my worry says more about me than about what’s actually happening when my children refuse to eat the things I think they should. I risk doing harm rather than good by not acknowledging that.

Someone else might worry that their child won’t grow up with acceptable manners and so refuse to give them things until they say “please” or insist they share their toys in an effort to train them to be generous. The thing is, the values behind courtesy and sharing can’t be forced on anyone. Control here is actually counterproductive and may even help realise the parent’s fears.

Do I need more information?

We’re all navigating unchartered waters to some extent in our parenting, whether that’s because a child has hit a new age or because we’re attempting to parent in ways that differ from the way that we were parented.

Our expectations of what our children may developmentally be capable of could be unrealistic. We may not understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

We also may not yet have developed skills for relating to them without recreating adult-child experiences we’ve had. When I shout or issue a threat it’s often because I feel at a loss for an alternative so I reach for what’s familiar.

Asking whether we need more information can help us to pause and give our children the benefit of the doubt. It may be just the question to reignite our empathy.

Admitting uncertainty can also set into motion the bigger work we do when we seek support from others and think about how to foster connection.

Connection is essentially the opposite of control, after all.  That’s the stuff all healthy relationships are made of.


Adele Jarrett-Kerr is a writer and home educating mother of three. She lives in Cornwall in the UK and blogs at Beautiful Tribe. You can also follow her as@beautiful.tribe on Instagram.


  • Isabelle November 12, 2017 at 3:11 am

    The method described as Taking Children Seriously demonstrates non-coercive childcare and they have a website which, although not user-friendly, has a lot of information on how to develop this system, which, as you say, so often goes against our own instincts and conditioning.

    The efforts you are making to demonstrate to your child a non-coercive, flexible approach will pay dividends in the future – in so many ways – for you, your child, your relationship and the people your child relates to during their life. Fantastic!


  • Freya November 21, 2017 at 4:32 am

    Thank you for this article. What can a parent do when she doesn’t want to be authoritarian, but she’s responsible for making sure that her child does (or doesn’t do) a certain thing, and the child is not cooperating? And either there isn’t time to have a conversation about it, or the child can’t or won’t explain? I can see that a mother might decide to let her child decide whether or not to taste the lentil soup, but what if she needs to get her daughter to get dressed for school, or stop being rough with a pet? Isn’t she responsible for controlling the child in those situations? (When I was a child, I had one parent who would yell and be violent, and one parent who would just reassure me that I didn’t have to do whatever-it-was after all. Now that I’m an adult, I wouldn’t want to repeat either of those patterns with a child.)

    • Adele Jarrett-Kerr November 27, 2017 at 2:41 pm

      Hello, I’ve only just seen your comment! I focused this post on the preliminary mental work we have to do to change the way we see our children’s behaviour but I didn’t really talk about what to do instead of being authoritarian.

      Yes, there are definitely times when we need to move more swiftly and your example of the pet is one so many of us can relate to. Personally, I’d get between the child and the pet or remove the pet all together. When everyone is safe, I’d explain, “I can’t let you hurt —-. It makes him scared/angry/uncomfortable. Can I help you play with them in a way they like?” This might have to be repeated, the pet and child might have to closely supervised or even separated. This is guidance rather than coercion with an emphasis on modelling empathy.

      As part of a bigger conversation, it could be worth trying to work out what’s going on here. What need is the child expressing by being rough with the pet? Do they need more connection, attention, rough play, time outside? Are they upset about something? Has something changed recently in the home?

      As for the school example, I home educate so can’t speak from personal experience but we do have places to be (doctor’s appointments spring to mind). It’s worth getting things started as early as you can so there is time to have a conversation about it but that’s not always possible. I think in those situations we need to explain as best we can what’s going on, why it has to happen and what has to happen.

      Again, try to work out what’s getting in the way of getting ready and whether there’s a compromise that can be struck. The child may have a solution. Talking in terms like, “We have a problem here because we have to get here by this time but this needs to happen so we can go. What can we do?” might help guide the conversation.

      If it’s a continual source of conflict, a pre-arranged family meeting when everyone is calm so everyone can talk and listen may throw up some solutions. This post offers more ideas on being an ally in the school context: http://parentallies.org/parenting/ways-to-be-an-ally-to-your-child-in-school/


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