The illusion of control

I’ve worked with teenagers for more than half my life, and with that has come the privilege of getting to watch, learn & walk through adventures with a lot of families.

I knew parenting would be a lot different than youth pastoring, and have tried to approach it with humility. It’s definitely grown in me some big doses of empathy and understanding for how hard it really is to be a parent, and how natural it is to hope your kids will thrive after all the blood, sweat & tears you’ve poured into them. (I mean really, you go without a full nights’ sleep for a year, and what do you get for it? They should at least be good kids, right? When my son pees on the potty, at least he gets a sticker! Nobody gives me stickers for changing diapers on 4 hours of sleep!)

Anyway. As it turns out, sometimes teenagers don’t make great choices, and it doesn’t feel good when you’ve poured years into raising these kids you love more than you can describe. I’ve noticed that parents often really struggle to understand how their kids wind up in dark places. I think that’s a really normal, understandable response. But there is, at times, a thought process behind it that’s flawed. Parents seem to think that if they do everything right (or at least most things right), their kids will thrive and grow up to become upstanding citizens, good Christians, or whatever it is they’re aiming for.

I share it with all due respect for parents who are sacrificing much for their kids. It’s just that there seems to be this commonly-held belief that “If I do _____, then my child will do ______.” We think – no, hope – that if we do things right, we can ensure our kids’ future well-being.

I call it the illusion of control.

This illusion of control, it turns out, starts way before kids turn into teenagers. I see it all the time on Mommy blogs, barycenter.com, social media and of course just talking with other moms. The line of thinking is this the same “If I do _____, then my child will do ______.” If you exclusively breastfeed your baby, he will be smarter, healthier & you’ll have a closer bond. If you do baby-led weaning, your child will be a better eater. If you do cry-it-out, your baby will have brain damage (or will be a better sleeper…depends who you ask). If you use cloth diapers, your baby will have fewer butt rashes.

With Elijah, we made the choices about those things we liked best and thought would best benefit him and our family, and it worked out pretty well.

And then came Ava. I knew she would have her own personality and habits, but assumed we’d be able to make some of our preferred choices again. The slow discovery that this would not be so was – and still is – hard. I’d breastfed Elijah for a year. I fought so hard to make it work with Ava and still ended up having to drop it long before I wanted to. Early on a therapist told us how critical tummy time was to a baby’s development and how it stimulates all these crucial brain connections. Ava cried and struggled to lift her head every time I put her on her tummy for the first four months – something I tirelessly tried to help her do – and she is still getting fitted for a flat-head helmet next week. (I even have this book about baby brain development that I’m avoiding like the plague because I’m afraid it’ll make me feel like she is already ruined.)

So what do you do when you believe “If I do _____ my baby will _______” …and it’s physically impossible to do those things? It feels so helpless to not be able to, well, control the situation. I can’t just make Ava stronger. I can’t give her back those first 7 months of not experiencing sound. And I realized recently that it’s much like the journey parents are on when their older kids make choices they don’t like. Because the truth is this: I can’t control her outcome anyway, because none of us can control the outcome of our parenting; we are raising people, not things.

It’s not that our choices don’t matter; they do. Yes, breastmilk is scientifically proven to be best. But it doesn’t guarantee a better future for your child, and its absence doesn’t guarantee a bad one. What we are really doing when we make the parenting choices we believe are best is creating an environment to help our kids thrive. Seeing it this way is the place we begin finding freedom and peace.

Ultimately, all we can do is give our kids opportunities to thrive, love them through their humanness and pray.

I’m starting to sound a little preachy now, and that’s not my aim, so I’ll stop and just say this. We are really just continuing to remind ourselves that God made Ava and she belongs to him and we just get to be a part of her journey. Her life is not a measure of my success or failure. Neither is Elijah’s. Maybe God gave us Ava, in part, to keep us humble, since Elijah navigates so many things easily that it’s easy for us to feel good about our parenting. (Really, I mean this kid is practically potty-training himself….)

But the other side of the illusion of control is this: We are not better parents if our kids perform well or make good choices. If we take credit for our kids’ successes, then we will also carry guilt for their struggles. 

Well, that’s what was swimming around my head all day. It’s 10:12pm and Ava is awake again. Here we go…

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