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Let’s not parent on autopilot

April 27, 2022

It’s what we do: we correct, advise, remind, coax, solve, teach, warn, scold and lecture.  These are all forms of parental influence —or parental control, depending on the lens you’re looking through.  “Controlling my children is part of being a good parent,” many of us believe.  

But can there be too much control? There can be when our efforts to control serve no real function but to encourage conformity and mindless obedience while reassuring us that all is in order. Consider these moments: 

“No, you cannot eat potato chips with your ice cream.” 

“No, you cannot skip tooth brushing tonight because you’re too tired.” 

“No, you cannot wear two different color socks to school.” 

“No, you cannot draw with chalk on the rims of your bicycle.” 

“No, you cannot give your toy to the child across the street.” 

“No, you cannot sleep on the sofa tonight.” 

“No, you cannot put the leash on the cat and take her for a walk.” 

“No, you cannot wear your brother’s sweater even though he said it’s okay.” 

These are moments of parenting on autopilot when we move so quickly to say “no” that we fail to reflect thoughtfully about the situation: would it really be harmful, would any actual damage be done? So often our children’s imaginations conjure ideas that deviate from convention; some people call it creativity. Too often, our knee-jerk reaction is to resist such deviations. But if we squelch our kids’ ideas often enough, they will abandon their imaginations and default to whatever it is that we require.  In doing so, they lose the freedom to dream, to experiment, to explore new ways of being in the world while learning it’s okay to assert themselves about the things they want. 

Too much “no” can become a form of parental over-control, constraining the development of autonomy and self-confidence. As parents, we’re all vulnerable to the controlling impulse. So much correcting, advising, reminding, coaxing, and lecturing can create the illusion that we’re doing our job as parents, teaching and molding and keeping the kids in line. But sometimes our kids need us to get out of the way and give them the breathing room to pursue where their imaginations take them.  

Let’s not parent on autopilot.