Is Giving Children Control A VERY BAD IDEA? This Might Surprise You...

I spent Wednesday in a room full of people who do one of the most important jobs on the planet. They foster children. Some care-experienced children are the most troubled, troubling and traumatised you could meet, and I can only be in awe of those who choose to share their homes, lives and love with them, 24/7.

Being a child in the care system is unfortunately peppered with the potential for powerlessness and helplessness, and my job for the day was to deliver a training session called ‘Re-empowering The Powerless Child’.

But the truth is that, culturally, children being widely given autonomy, agency and control is not valued and, in truth, is often feared.
It will forever bamboozle me that nobody in power questions why the same system that expects children to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives by the age of thirteen also sees fit to dictate exactly where they are, what they’re doing and who with, what they wear, when they eat, and whether they’re even allowed to use the toilet.

The teenage brain is under massive reconstruction, meaning that adolescence, especially between the ages of 13-15, renders those brains ill-equipped to make big, complex choices, especially about the years to come.
But it would still help enormously if children were given the opportunities, regularly and routinely throughout childhood, to practice autonomy and agency, and to possess ‘personal power’.

Why would we not want our children to self-identify as an individual who can make informed decisions, exert influence and who are in charge of their own lives?

Unfortunately, while the world generally recognises that part of a healthily functioning adulthood means being able to exert influence, control and be in charge of our own lives, society tends to have opposing feelings about these qualities in childhood; ‘powerful children’ are expected to disrespect boundaries, undermine authority, be demanding, self-entitled, and generally a lot of trouble.

Even if we genuinely value the voice of children, it can still be hard work. Negotiating power and control with them can be time and energy intensive, and so it’s sometimes easier and quicker all-round for the adults to be in charge.
 And these are all valid concerns.

But how many young people, and the adults they become, then end up being washed mindlessly along with what everyone else is doing, even though it’s not right for them?
Or just do what the world, or someone else, tells them they ‘should’, without question? (And let’s not underestimate the risks, given that impressionable young people have become very useful commodities in crime and exploitation)
Or living a small life because they fear taking up space? AKA not having a sense of their own power

Children don’t want your power, they want their own’.
It’s a mantra I hold dear, especially for those who’ve been repeatedly rendered powerless.
The realities of living and working with some of these particular children is that – in an effort to exercise control in their own lives wherever they can – they may turn every exchange into a power struggle.
Or they may be paralysed by the fear of having any.

While often convenient, powerlessness is not healthy for any child or adolescent. And there are plenty of opportunities in our practice and parenting to help empower them, without the stereotypical fears materialising.

How else will they learn to steer their own course, stand their ground, dare to go against the grain, believe in themselves or chase their wildest dreams?

Here are three simple ways you can help to nurture a more powerful child, without giving any of your own away:

1. Release the fear (just a tiny bit) 
Whatever age your children might be, there are some responsibilities – getting a bowl of cereal or finding out the time of the next bus etc. – that in themselves are never going to cause any real harm.
But the idea of them actually getting themselves home on that bus, or walking to school on their own, or using the kettle etc. might fill us with dread.

Of course, they still need to be ready to manage (or at least that no real damage will occur if they don’t) but certain tasks are never not going to be terrifying, no matter how long we wait.
As well intended as our protection is, many of our actions can inadvertently teach our kids that we don’t trust them, reinforcing their belief that they’re neither competent nor capable.

They need to learn to trust themselves. Otherwise, when life throws them into independence, as it eventually will, their indecision or lack of confidence could be paralysing.
What are those ‘OMG’ tasks that fill your imagination with the unbearable: Using the iron, crossing that busy road, using sharp knives?
How can you release your grip, just a tiny bit, and help them take one step closer to the next level of responsibility?

2. Insist they do a job that you usually assume is yours
There’ll be some which your children might resist and others they might delight in, but our days are filled with opportunities for them to undertake tasks that we just continue to do ourselves, because that’s what we’re used to, or it’s easier, or it feels safer that way.

Unless they’re likely to empty your bank account the moment your back’s turned, can they learn how to use the cash machine? Or pay at the self-service check-out?
Can they prepare their own food? Or order their own meal or ask for the bill in a restaurant?
Can they ask an unknown adult for help or directions?

Resist their resistance to those less appealing jobs if you can; just like their grown-ups, kids sometimes have to move through discomfort before a task becomes comfortable. You letting them off the hook and compensating for their lack of action can just delay the inevitable.

3. Give them agency and autonomy 
If you ask an infant to choose one from a bunch of bananas or a box of pencils they’ll usually do so in a considered or careful way, even if they all look the same; they like making decisions.
And why shouldn’t they? Autonomy and independence are evolutionary necessities to ensure they don’t stay helpless for very long.

But we often don’t give our growing, developing offspring much agency or control at all; it may not occur to us to, we may not trust that they’ll make the right choice, and sometimes it’s just easier…

Even if the adult world is (or isn’t!) a long way off though, no childhood lasts very long. So even if they won’t want to, I’d argue we should insist our children step up to the plate, regardless.
They’ll eventually be faced with the choice to become the CEO of their own lives or not, and the only way they learn to make good decisions is by making decisions.

Can they help with the shopping list? It doesn’t mean they can omit all the good stuff and fill the trolley with junk food. You can still have criteria for what goes in.
Can they decide the details of a day out or one aspect of the family holiday?
Can there be a set day of the week where they decide what to have for dinner?

Handing over some power to your kids doesn’t have to compromise yours. In fact the most powerful thing we can do is share it. How are you going to?

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