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Controlling Our Kids
Mom with a View

Controlling Our Kids

Back off and avoid the power struggles at all costs.


Alice Roosevelt was, apparently, a high-spirited adolescent. Her father, President Teddy Roosevelt, once remarked, “I can be the President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I can not possibly do both.” And presumably he had staff to help him!

But with all due respect to the former President, I think he was mistaken. No matter how powerful we are, no matter how many resources we have at our command, we can’t “control” our teenagers.

And perhaps we shouldn’t want to. Give them boundaries? Yes. Establish some guidelines and direction? Yes. (Very) occasionally discipline? Yes.

But I think the effort to control is a misplaced one. Not only are we pretty much guaranteed to fail – or at least be ineffective – but we will probably end up damaging our relationship with our children in the process. If we try to exert “control,” we will likely end up in one of those no-win and potentially disastrous power struggles.

My husband likes to use a fishing analogy (I’m not sure why; I don’t think he’s ever gone fishing in his life). We need to let the line out gently – as far as we think is safe. At the point where it is no longer safe (emotionally, physically, psychologically), we need to carefully and gently reel them back in, carefully being the operative word.

With children of all ages, and most especially adolescents, one of the best strategies to give them a choice (“You can be home at 9:59 or 10:01; which do you prefer? is one of our favorites!) “You can buy the shoes or the dress.” “You can stay out an extra ½ hour tonight or Saturday night.” “You can have the car this afternoon or this evening.” “You can go to this concert or that one – but NOT this one” (someone will have to fill in the blanks for me here).

The last thing teenagers want to feel is powerless -- probably because that’s the way they truly feel inside. We don’t want to heighten their anxiety and thereby harden their need to assert control.

So we need to back off ourselves. We must tamp down our own need and desire for control.

It helps when we recognize that our sense of control is only an illusion anyway, that the Almighty is really running the show.

And it helps to phrase certain rules that might be (mis)interpreted by our offspring as too restrictive (wait; that applies to every rule!) or as attempts at control as reflective of our own shtick.

“I get nervous when…” “I can’t sleep when…” “It would be a kindness to me if…” This allows them to save face in front their friends, as they blame their neurotic parents. It also gives them permission and freedom to back out of an uncomfortable situation with grace and with their ego and street creds intact.

I’m sure Teddy Roosevelt was right that he couldn’t control his daughter, Alice. He was just wrong in thinking he should try.

October 21, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 6

(4) Anonymous, January 1, 2013 3:21 PM

Facing the music -- what are parents to do?

This article finds the iceberg. How do we navigate it wisely? What additional techniques and resources are "safe and effective"? What about pitfalls of ineffective interventions, for exame the potential to make things worse through • self-deception, including acquiescence under the guise of presumptive bitachon • avoidance, without accommodation of unacceptable behaviors • worsening, exacerbation of hard-to-detect issues such as anxiety

(3) malka, October 23, 2012 10:08 PM

controlling your child

my husband and i have 1 daughter who has brought nothing but pain to our lives. she said that we were an embarrasment to her because we were jewish, so we backed off, hoping she would find some respect for us, but to no avail. she marrried a jew hating dutchman and we have never seen our grandsons who are now 11 and 12. the only way we could be a part of her life is if we gave up our jewish heritage, which we were not prepared to do. with prayers and counselling we have had to let go. we tried many methods with our daughter, none of which worked. she and her husband have a successful life, of which we are not a part of. we lost a lot so called friends who said that we were wrong to put our religeon before our daughter. but HA SHEM comes even before anyone or anything else.

Sharon, October 24, 2012 2:43 PM

sounds painful

It sounds like you have suffered, but you can pray that one day the grandkids will seek you out of their initiative.

josh g., November 1, 2012 6:14 PM

a call for courage

dear malka, i can deeply empathize with the pain you must feel. and i wholeheartedly agree that Hashem's will takes precedence, always (have you fully shared this situation with a Torah sage in coming to determine His Will here?) for this reason i wish to respond openly and directly, and i pray you will have the courage to consider my words though they will likely be very uncomfortable to read. your opening line troubles me. you must be suffering so terribly to recall only the pain your child brings you. what of her first smiles, giggles, words and steps as a baby? the pride she must have, at some times, given you in her interactions with elders and peers and perhaps siblings? and most sublimely, the opportunity to give to and be the guardian of a precious, cherished child of Hashem - a neshama that we are taught, even now is loved by Hashem more than any human will ever love another. the opportunity to raise a child is a gift, a privilege and tribute from The King in and of itself. children are not nachas machines. they are our chance to give, to become like G-d. even now you can still give to her, if you can find it in your heart to desire as much. you can pray for her and her children, cry to Hashem that He watch over them even as they are beyond your own sight. you can choose to love them even if you feel certain that they do not want that love, even if they dont love you back. you can choose to judge her favorably, for who knows what biopsychosocial elements have brought her along this path. you can choose to focus on her good qualities (and all people have at least a few) and ignore the rest. in truth, the above may prove to be the easy part. forgiving her may turn out to be far easier than forgiving yourself of all the would'ves could'ves and should've. take heart, there will be reward for your efforts, and hope for the future. may Hashem console you, gladden you and bring eliyahu hanavi who will return the hearts of children to their parents.

(2) Helen Stanbro, October 23, 2012 9:56 PM

choice pitfall

Your recommendation of giving choices to kids reminded me of a friend of mine. She and her husband, both PH.D. scientists, studied up on child rearing and psychology before having their first child. They tried this strategy and always gave him a choice--"You have a choice. Do you want to wear the red sweater or the white one?" "You have a choice. Do you want to eat the peas first, or the carrots?" When he was only about 18 months old, they were going by an ice-cream store, he said, "You have a choice. You can buy me a chocolate cone or a strawberry one." He probably has his PH.D. too by now!

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