🕹️ Under my control

Question 1: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Answer: The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping.
Question 2: What is the sound of one child misbehaving?
Answer: The sound of one child misbehaving is the sound of one child misbehaving.
Question 3: What is the sound of my child misbehaving?
Answer: The sound of “I can’t control this child”
the sound of “I should be able to”
the sound of “I am a bad parent”
the sound of “I don’t know what to do”
the sound of “I hate this child!”
the sound of “I shouldn’t feel that way!”
the sound of my failure.

A Zen Koan adapted for parents. [1]

Have you ever heard a Koan before? Koans are paradoxical riddles without logical solutions. They are used in Zen Buddhism as a tool for enlightenment because apparently, our logic can't take us too far.

The above Koan has been transformed from its original form ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?") into a satirical exhibition of a parent's failed logical reasoning.

Our thinking is biased. We tend to look for cause-and-effect relationships where there is none. Starting off with a self-sabotaging thought is a recipe for self-destruction, such as the one that reads "I can't control this child" in this Koan.

It seems that feeling the need to, trying to, and failing at controlling children is a widespread pain across cultures. Societies seem to have agreed that children belong under the shadow of their parents, often supported by the claim that the parent's control keeps them safe, well-behaved, and successful in life.

Control is a battleground parents create in their own heads. Sadly, it's a losing game for both the parent and the child.

Control is an act of ego.

In controlling relationships, children, even when they are tiny babies are tried to be squeezed into the expectations of their parents.

The expectations from a baby can range from striving to have them sleep through the night fresh out of the womb, to placing their observed temperament into binary classifications – such as easy vs. difficult.

Children are almost seen as an inferior class: they don't have the right to express opinions, tastes, or emotions as much as they deem satisfying. Their outburst is always capped at their carer's patience.

This is not fair.

Children are already competent and complex human beings.

Their behavior deserves to be seen beyond the polarity of negative and positive.

Control can come in obvious forms, such as excessive instructions, physical limitation, aggression towards the child's expressions, and outright punishment.

But it doesn't always have to be that obvious. Even parents who are fully committed to gentle parenting may find themselves in the controller position when they become uncomfortable with how their children express themselves. Have you ever heard yourself say:

  • “Ok, I think you’ve cried enough, now it’s time to calm down.”
  • “Big girls/boys don’t cry.”
  • “Oh, never mind her, she’s just going through the terrible twos.”

Control often disguises itself as protection. Protection is essential in parenting, but it's worth checking: is there a need for health-threatening protection or is it our own fears in disguise?

Children need firm and compassionate boundaries to be their sovereign selves in a loving and protective environment. Control is mistaken for boundary-setting but there is a clear distinction between the two, the most important difference being the parent's ego being in play instead of the child's needs. But let's leave that to another letter.

For now, let's try to ask ourselves:

  • What do they need?
  • Why does this need trigger me?
  • Why do I fear letting go of control?
  • How can I accept their needs as they are?

Letting go of control is not as dramatic as it sounds. You will see what I mean after reading this excerpt from the book "The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self" from Alice Miller that hurts my heart every time I read it. How does it make you feel? Hit reply and let me know!

“I was out for a walk and noticed a young couple a few steps ahead, both tall; they had a little boy with them, about two years old, who was running alongside and whining. (We are accustomed to seeing such situations from the adult point of view, but here I want to describe it as experienced by the child.)

The two had just bought themselves ice-cream bars on sticks from the kiosk, and were licking them with evident enjoyment. The little boy wanted one, too. His mother said affectionately, “Look, you can have a bite of mine, a whole one is too cold for you.”

The child did not want just one bite but held out his hand for the whole bar, which his mother took out of his reach again. He cried in despair, and soon exactly the same thing was repeated with his father: “There you are, my pet,” said his father affectionately, “you can have a bite of mine.” “No, no,” cried the child and ran ahead again, trying to distract himself.

Soon he came back again and gazed enviously and sadly up at the two grown-ups, who were enjoying their ice cream contentedly and began to throw little stones over his shoulder in his mother’s direction, but then he suddenly got up again and looked around anxiously, making sure that his parents were still there.

When his father had completely finished his ice cream, he gave the stick to the child and walked on. The little boy licked the bit of wood expectantly, looked at it, threw it away, wanted to pick it up again but did not do so, and a deep sob of loneliness and disappointment shook his small body. Then he trotted obediently after his parents.”

[1] I found this Zen Koan in the book "Mindful Parenting: A Guide for Mental Health Practitioners." It originally appeared in this article.


🥄 Nurturing my favorite moms and dads

This week's theme is control. Here's an article that I shared on the blog recently:

The illusion of control and how it affects our parenthood: Our brains tend to find cause and effect relationships in events even when there is none. This tendency has a name in psychology: the illusion of control.


That's it for this week! ❤️

If you've enjoyed this letter, consider sending it to another parent. It always makes me very happy.

Send me your thoughts! I'm on Twitter and love seeing a DM in my inbox. You can also hit reply or shoot me an email at basak@apparent.today.

Until next Saturday!

Love, Basak (founder of Apparent)