Developmental Psychology 102: Control

It’s been almost a year since my last post. An eventful year for our family. We gained a new home. We lost a father / grandfather. And a thousand other tiny but no less epic events. I will write more about all that soon…

But today we continue our study in Developmental Psychology. Here in Dev Psych 102, we explore the limits of control.

I only have practical experience in raising children below the age of 6. By the time I have hands-on knowledge of each new age and phase, it’s far too late for our two oldest Arnold Girls, in the same way it’s too late to avoid a train once it’s run you over.

So I read a lot, hoping to find wisdom and help for each new stage or phase or seismic shift that’s coming. In the process I’ve found a lot of conversations about control – and not losing it. Controlling attitudes. Control actions. Controlling your emotions. There’s even a behavioral adjustment system you can order that promises to “change your child’s attitude in 30 seconds or less.”

To be sure, the first years of life are all about control. In fact, the more in control of things like schedule and routine you can be, the better. Young human organisms crave stability, predictability, and regularity. When they begin to crawl, we control access to danger with various stages of baby-proofing – a sliding scale that runs from “putting hazardous things up high or behind locked doors” to “encasing your home in Nerf.”

But as the twins grew, with every major milestone I noticed an alarming trend; every new ability they gained eroded a little bit of my hard-won control. It starts innocently enough with the logical progression of physical maturity: a baby who learns to crawl is quickly converted from an uber-cute, cooing accessory that stays where you put her to the Amazing Baby Houdini, capable of disappearing around corners, out open doors, and under furniture in point five seconds flat.

Enter the baby gates. We created barricades worthy of any State Penitentiary with XT Play Yard panels. We permanently scarred the landscape of many a stairwell with iron and plastic bars, affixed with deep set screws. And we rested secure in the knowledge that we had reestablished control, that the inmates would not be able to escape their asylum.

Until that fateful night night when the tranquility and relative calm of the dead zone between kid bedtime and parent bedtime was shattered by the unmistakable “thud…brief silence…blood-curdling scream” all parents recognize instinctively: a two year old has scaled the walls of her crib and fallen out of bed.

The first time it happens is a watershed moment in the parenting journey. The doomsday scenario has commenced, and its unimaginable horror is upon us: they can get out of bed, and now they know it.

After a few more tumbles, it becomes obvious that mere wooden slats can no longer assure containment. Might as well convert over to the toddler bed. Soon, door handles will become accessible instruments. Tall counters will be summited with chairs and stacked boxes. Drawers will be pilfered like so many treasure chests. Toothbrushes, toys, cell phones, hands and feet will find their way into unsecured toilets. Floor pie will be eaten. Candy dish contents will be absconded with.

And one day, many months later – most likely during your eighteenth attempt to find a place to store scissors where no one can get to them – you hear a new word tumbling from the lips of your sweet cherub: “Why?”

As in, “Why can’t I cut my own hair?” “Why can’t I pick up the cat?” “Why can’t I have markers?” “Why can’t I wear the clothes I picked out?” (The answers, of course, in order are: “Because you’re not very good at it yet.” “He will try to tear your face off if you do.” “Because the guy at Home Depot said the paint we used in your room was washable, and he is a filthy liar.” “Because you picked out a swimsuit, and we are going to church.”

“Why” is actually a tough question to answer sometimes. It forces us to think through the rules we make and the answers we give. Sometimes our well crafted reasons are not quite enough to quell their doubts, and we have to resort to good old parent standbys like “you’ll understand later” and the ever popular “because.” and sometimes all I can get out is “I love you. You’re just going to have to trust me.”

When the “whys” start, something else has also begun. It’s the ticking of a timer, whose ending bell will signal that fateful day when we hug and kiss and send them off one last time to college, or a wedding, or their first apartment as adults. It’s countdown will be punctuated by a thousand other moments, large and small, when we will let go just a little more. First school. First overnighter. First drive. First date (over my dead body, of course).

Like last Fall, when we put the twins on the bus and sent them off to Kindergarten.

We can control a lot for a long time. But not everything. And not forever. From imploring them to stay in their big girl beds all night (and not wander the house) to teaching them how to make wise choices away from home, we are in the process of removing the guard rails bit by bit, day by day, until one day they stand on their own.

When we moved into our current house, the inspector had me crawl under the floor to take a look. There were large round pilings, part of the foundation. They were covered in tattered, mildewed cardboard. He explained that these were the forms used to pour the concrete, and workers had forgotten to remove them. “You should take these off. They’re not doing anything except rotting.”

I’m praying I recognize when I need to hold on and when to let go. And I’m hoping that will happen long before my rules become rotting forms that aren’t doing anyone any good.

I know the Arnold Girls are my gift for a season – to love and nurture, to teach and release. And with every new bed – and all the other firsts – I am learning to trust that the God who gave them to me in the first place is more than able to keep, protect, shelter, and guide them through their whole lives. He never sleeps; he never slumbers. They are safe in His arms. So I commit them to His keeping.

I was getting a haircut. The hair-cutter lady was telling me about her three young daughters. One in particular she described as having a strong will, stubborn streak, and “an attitude on herrrrrrrr…”. She said “I do my best to control her, but sometimes I don’t know what to do.”

I thought for a minute and suddenly found my inner monologue falling out my lips. I said, “I’m not sure you can control her strong will. You can correct her behavior and channel that strong personality into something positive. You can control her actions, but her strength of will is part of who she is.”

That’s the guts of it to me – parenting as a person-building task, not a fight for control. The insecure need to control leads to manipulation and open war. Faith gives us the ability to concentrate on building character and to trust God for the moments they are beyond our control.

At least I think so now. I’ll get back to you when the twins turn 13…

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