Are you easy-going and laid-back or do you strive to control every aspect of your life? Do you need to have your future mapped out or are you happy to take each day as it comes?
I considered myself relatively laissez-faire until a moment of self-revelation thanks to a humorous postcard in a gift shop. It showed a little girl covered in chocolate cake mixture with the caption: ‘Letting your child “help” you is the quickest way to discover you’re a control freak’.
Like many women I know, having children heralded a feverish desire to take control. Parenting can be chaotic and stressful. Babies follow no routine (despite what some parenting ‘gurus’ will have you believe), and small children have no regard for safety, tidiness or social niceties. To combat the mayhem, I created a rigid structure and a lengthy set of rules that continues though my ‘babies’ are now aged six and nine.
I’ve been known to lay out exactly what I want my children to wear. I’ve been guilty of choosing when they eat and what they eat (down to the specific size of their broccoli portions). I’ve over-scrutinised their homework, their play and their table manners. Worse, I’ve used ‘no’ as a default answer to everything. No, you can’t skateboard on the pavement (too dangerous), write your own party invitations (too slow), or make your own lunch (too messy). As for my children ‘helping’ me, I prefer doing the household chores myself than redoing them after their attempts.
Of course, I’m not alone. A quick poll of my friends reveals most of them are self-confessed control freaks at home. Even the chilled-out ones have verged on the tyrannical since having children.
My friend Becky sets an egg-timer so her 10-year-old son doesn’t take more than five minutes in the shower. She also still washes his hair and trims his nails. Then there’s Sarah, who rarely lets her children’s friends visit because she can’t stand the bedlam.
So what is it that turns previously level-headed women into crazed over-organisers? And how can we learn to take a step back?
Experts agree that the desire to control is almost always fuelled by anxiety. ‘Fear of being out of control is a common – and normal – feeling when you become a parent,’ explains Dr Paul Blenkiron from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. ‘You’re trying to establish structure and order in your life to handle the chaos of bringing up children. Unfortunately, people confuse being a good parent with having a rigid routine, but ironically, the opposite is true.’
Anxiety and parenting seem to go hand-in-hand, and my own need for control is certainly borne out of fear – a fear that if I don’t, everything will fall apart. But the danger is that by not allowing children the freedom to learn from their mistakes, they won’t become resilient, confident human beings.
A study by the University of Mary Washington in the US (published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies), found that children with controlling parents are more likely to be depressed or anxious. They feel less competent and less able to manage life.
It’s something behaviour specialist Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99), recognises: ‘It’s a natural urge to be independent,’ she says. ‘When children are self-reliant, they become more self-confident; they feel they can cope with their lives. But if parents are constantly doing things for them or making decisions for them, they’re not learning to believe in their own capabilities. It’s about letting them practise making decisions in areas where they’ve shown the maturity to make sensible choices.’
My own nine-year-old son began to push against my overbearing parenting about a year ago. He had angry outbursts borne out of sheer frustration. We’d clash over my insistence he tidied away his Lego nightly, to his desire to have a say in what was dished up at mealtimes. The truth was, he wasn’t just rebelling, he was unhappy. The surfeit of anxiety-driven parenting had taken its toll. The crunch came when I refused to let him wear an old jumper, resulting in a half-hour meltdown culminating in the heartfelt cry, ‘You never let me choose anything for myself!’
I felt guilty, because he was right. He was nine, yet he had virtually no say in his own life. Sheepishly I realised that, for him to be happy, confident and self-reliant, I needed to give him the space to make his own choices and, with that, his own mistakes.
So how could I change? Could I become less anxious? And was it possible to strike a balance between allowing more freedom while still maintaining boundaries?
On a recommendation from a similarly controlling friend, I read The Idle Parent: When Less Means More When Raising Kids (Penguin, £8.99) by Tom Hodgkinson. His philosophy is refreshingly simple – the best thing we can do for children is to leave them alone. ‘To the busy modern parent, this idea seems counter-intuitive,’ he says. ‘Aren’t we always being told to do more, not less? Well, no. The problem is that we’re putting too much work into parenting, not too little. By over-interfering, we are not allowing the child to grow up and learn… We need to retreat. Let them live.’
Taking a step back
He suggests letting children scrape their knees to strengthen their ability to deal with pain. He advocates not intervening in sibling arguments, so they can learn the art of negotiation, and avoids reprimanding his children for things that will correct themselves in time, such as table manners.
He even suggests that the more you ignore children, the better. ‘I’m not, of course, advocating slobbish neglect,’ he insists. ‘There’s carefree and there’s careless, and there’s a difference… Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is respect for the child – trust in another human being.’
Tom’s book chimed with me. With his words ringing in my ears, I confronted my inner anxiety and changed tack. Although it went against my deepest maternal instincts, I tried to let my children get on with life without unnecessary interference.
When they squabbled, I forced myself to go into another room. I relaxed the rules on clothing (binning outfits with holes made the process easier!). I resisted badgering about guitar practice, letting my son take the flak from his teacher instead, and I let them ‘help’ me cook meals. Sometimes, I even ignored them altogether, as Tom suggested, only to discover them later engrossed in a book or game.
At times, it’s been agonising. I still wince as they chop vegetables, and bite my tongue when they turn the living room into an assault course. But now, when my inner control freak rears its head, I tell myself it’s my anxiety speaking and I question the fear, something Blenkiron suggests: ‘Ask yourself what you fear would happen if you let your children cook a meal or choose their own clothes? If you avoid things and don’t test out your worst fears, how do you know? Sometimes, you have to force yourself to do things that make you feel uncomfortable, to find out.’
Ironically, to gain control over my life, I’ve had to lose control, because, by letting go, my children are happier. The outbursts are fewer because they finally have a stake in their own lives. By trusting them to make their own decisions, they’ve also become responsible, as my son proved recently. The old overbearing me never let him buy his own ice-cream in case he chose a sugar-laden triple 99 with syrup and extra sprinkles.
But, the other day, I sent him off to the ice-cream van alone. To my surprise, he returned with an ice lolly: ‘I had cake for pudding at lunch, so I chose the healthier option,’ he said. I was proud – he was exercising self-reliance and self-control. As was I!
Are screens a source of friction in your home? Do you worry about the amount of time your children spend on phones, tablets and watching TV? You’re not alone. Join learning and behaviour specialist Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer Easier Happier Screen Time (Yellow Kite, £14.99), to learn practical approaches to limiting your child’s screen time, and how to ensure that they get the best from digital technology. Find out more about this event here.