Search the site

Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Are We Control Freaks?

I just spoke at a parent conference, and held an informal focus group afterward. I decided to ask them what they were hearing and seeing in other parents, as they sent their kids to school. The stories were both entertaining and sad:

  • Mothers were asking faculty if they could take the “test” for their child in school, as their kids were too stressed out to take it themselves.
  • A dad stepped in to argue with a baseball umpire when their son had “struck out.”  The boy actually struck out swinging.
  • Parents pushed other children out of the way, as they hunted for Easter Eggs to fill their children’s baskets. They didn’t want their kid to go without.
  • Moms and dads refused to tell their kids the soccer game score when they lost, as it would depress them. They reported it was a “tie.”

control freak

At the root of each of these episodes is the pursuit of control. If we’re honest, many of us are just plain control freaks. Parent engagement is not bad. But when it becomes parental control—we do more damage than good.

Much of our problem, as parents, is the result of our pursuit of control. We are the most controlling population of parents in recent history. Often, we feel our public schools aren’t doing a good enough job; the local soccer team doesn’t give our kid enough playing time; the theatre arts program didn’t cast our daughter with enough lines in the play—and we feel we must step in and control the situation. What we must recognize is: control is a myth. We are not in control. Life is bigger than us, and the sooner we equip our kids to handle the ups and downs of it, the better they are.

Is This About Now or Later?

Perhaps, this is the biggest adjustment we must make: to stop pursuing control. To learn to trust and to enable our kids to navigate their way through life without the misconception that they can control it. Adaptability, not control should be our aim.

The fact is—very often, we live, lead and parent only for today. We just want peace right now. Forget the long-term impact on our kids.  In contrast, my mother and father modeled long-term parenting all through my growing up years. When I stole something as a young kid, I would have to march down to the store and give it back with an apology. If I lied, or if I cheated—it was the same thing. Consequences came even if it was a little white lie or cheating on a very small problem. Why? It was the principle of the thing. Long term, my parents knew I was forming patterns in my life every day. I learned a huge axiom over the years:

The further out I can see, the better decisions I make as a parent.

Author Hara Estroff-Marano writes, “Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences.’ Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned they are capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals.” Kids who’ve never tested their abilities, grow into emotionally brittle young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

According to one U.S. poll, the majority of parents admit their kids have too little responsibility. Compared to their parents or grandparent’s generation, we’ve busied them with soccer games and piano recitals, but not with real responsibility such as work, service or even chores around the house. While a kid can learn some disciplines from games or recitals, authentic responsibility comes from the real world, where we serve others who cannot help themselves or in exchange for a paycheck. The exchange has an internal affect on us, even as kids. Why? Because the consequences are real. Losing isn’t simply about a soccer scoreboard or messing up on a song in a recital, but about affecting real people. As our kids growing older, both benefits and consequences must become real.

What Happens if We Remove Consequences From Our Kids’ Actions?

If adults fail to learn this important truth, our kids will often grow up to be:

  • Irresponsible adults.

They won’t have ownership of their life; they’ll learn to blame others.

  • Lazy adults.

They have a poor work ethic, and perhaps low creativity levels.

  • Dependent adults.

They won’t be self-sufficient; they’ll be unready for autonomy.

  • Emotionally brittle adults.

They will have few coping skills; they won’t develop resilience.

What I Decided To Do…

When my kids turned twelve, I chose to illustrate the power of consequences and benefits in life. Every action brings one or the other:

1. Talk about the long-term outcome of their decisions.

When they face big choices, help them see “down the road” and what may come of it.

2. Tell your own stories of regret and reward.

Although they may consider it cheesy, talk about your past regrets and rewards.

3. Take them to interview a successful professional.

Find someone who’s succeeded at what they want to do and discover their choices.

4. Take them to a prison and interview an inmate.

I have taken kids to talk to inmates who made poor choices and suffered for them.

5. Have your children write down their “end game.”

After writing down their big goals, talk about the action steps required to get there.

The take-away? Your kids learn to navigate real world consequences. You learn to surrender control. That’s not a bad trade-off.


  1. Timothy Lynn Burchfield on August 19, 2013 at 5:46 am

    My kids love to hear my story about school. Walking to school in knee deep snow up hill both ways.

    Seriously, our four children began to learn at 5 years old when they played their first team sports. Because my wife and I are long time athletes, we learned to win with humility and loose with dignity at early ages. We felt our children should understand personal responsibility and taught them this lesson at every opportunity. Life also requires one to get back on the field and keep playing.
    Nobody likes to loose. Winning feels good. Life requires we keep both of these in the right perspective.
    My favorite quotes (jokes):
    “The harder they hit…..the more it hurts”
    “It does not matter whether you win or loose….until you loose”

    • Tim Elmore on August 19, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment Timothy! I have great respect for you as you bring an “athlete’s perspective” for your kids’ development in helping them push through obstacles and learn the value of personal responsibility. Thank you for your leadership and for equipping your kids with the skills to succeed.

  2. trupii on August 21, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    This really resonates with me. My parents taught me to cook dinner for the family, do my own laundry, and do my chores (note: plural) by the time I was 7. And no, I didn’t grow up on a farm!
    I credit them teaching me hard work and real responsibility that led to future successes. And I saw this a lot when I was an RA in college – some of my girls could cope with failure and move on gracefully, and some couldn’t. The ones that could came from families where parents appropriately let their kid fight their own battles and learn from failure.
    This is such a fantastic article.

    • Tim Elmore on August 26, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing, Trupii! It seems you had some great parents that helped you succeed in college and life.

Leave a Comment

Are We Control Freaks?