The Fine Line Between A Good Parent And A Control Freak

by VK

Last week one of my favorite parenting sites, Parent Hacks, ran an entry about “ground-tying” kids to keep them from growing unruly in long checkout lines. If you’re not familiar with horses, that phrase may alarm you. Essentially, ground-tying a horse involves training the animal not to move away from the spot on the ground where you drop the ends of the reins. Neat trick if you’re far from a hitching post.

Ed similarly trained his son, Josh, not to move from a spot by first teaching him to stick his finger in a knothole on the coffee table until given permission to move. Later, Ed described taking Josh to the grocery store where he adapted the technique:

One day while checking out at our local grocery store, Joshua was a bit fidgety as I was trying to pay for the groceries. I located a screw on the side of the counter and told him to put his finger on it and don’t move.

Josh did as instructed to the awe of everyone watching. I then said the magic word “release” and he walked out the store with me knowing there was an ice cream in his future.

The responses to Ed’s technique were a mixture of outrage (How dare he treat a child like an animal!) and qualified approval (Great idea, as long as the kid understands the purpose!)

Initially, I was in the latter camp. I, personally, use a similar method with the Big-Eyed Boy: I tell him he’s in charge of holding on to our shopping cart’s handle, with both hands, while I watch the scanner, pay and wait for my change. I don’t have to use a ‘magic word’ like “Release.” As soon as I have my keys in hand and step toward my son, he knows it’s time to let go while I take over pushing the cart. Still, I figure if Ed’s method works for him — and if it doesn’t bother his son — more power to them.

That was last week.

This week, Ed’s back with another “hack” he uses to keep his son from running around in busy parking lots. This time, I can’t help thinking that the “hack” involved here is Ed himself, whose claimed good intentions are carried out in ways increasingly demeaning to his child. To-wit:

I started playing a little game of “Assume the position” with my son to keep him by the car and out of trouble.

Josh would place both hands on the side of the car, feet back and spread’em! He once again would not move until I said the magic word… “release”. I would get some pretty interesting looks from passers by.

This time, I cannot help seeing Ed as a bit of a control freak, one who compels his son to remain motionless so Dad can enjoy the thrill of saying “Release.” There are, after all, other ways to accomplish the same purpose — albeit without use of the word “release,” and without provoking the “interesting looks from passers by.”

Buckle the child in his car seat, for instance, and roll the windows down so he does not overheat while Dad loads purchases into the car. Have the child hold on to the shopping cart, as I do, until it’s empty. Or, even, have the child stand at the cart and hand things to Dad to put into the car. All three ways keep his son safe. Heck, Ed can even say “Release” when they’re done if he wants to.

But as for having a child “assume the position” of what he knows, Dad knows and all those passers by know is that of a common criminal is denigrating. That position is designed to render a person exposed, powerless and helpless. That’s why police use it.

Oh, sure, the kid may think it’s a funny game — unless the side of the car is quite hot when he puts his hands there — but the fact is that, just as Ed himself has noticed, the child is no doubt aware of the strange looks he gets from others. The whispers. The frowns. The disapproval. The stares.

Ed can tell himself all he wants that his son is being helpful by cooperating, that it makes Ed feel better knowing his child is safe while he unloads the cart, et cetera. But the real lesson that he’s teaching his son is that following Dad’s rules makes him a public spectacle, someone who is different and worrisome to strangers. Josh is not learning that standing still makes Ed’s life easier. Josh is learning that doing what Ed demands makes him look like a fool.

Have fun in those teen years, Ed.

4 Responses to “The Fine Line Between A Good Parent And A Control Freak”

  1. Right on, Kate. Reminds me of the unease I always have when I see the kids on leashes. It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse of wanting to make 100% sure the kid stays close, but the leash doesn’t teach the kid anything except how he feels when he’s physically confined at his parent’s desire.

    The Bean “stands by the tire” while I put stuff in the car and open his door, whereupon he hops into his seat. There are plenty of ways to train kids to do what’s safe–and it is training. It shouldn’t have an extra layer of dubious gratification for the parent. 😛

  2. Ugh. Have to remember those tongue-stickers look like smileys. That was meant to be:

    : – P

  3. we just pretend the hand is glued to whatever, the side of the checkout, the cart, the bench just beyond the end of the checkout… We don’t say “release” either. Actually I usually get complimented on my kids behavior in public, especially restaurants. We have never allowed the kids to get up and run around and they don’t. They always ask permission to leave the table as well. On the very rare occasion when a child is acting up in the grocery store, I abandon the cart and we go home. That’s it, that’s all. I will not put other people through a child’s misbehavior.

  4. I’ve been known to walk out of stores and leave my cart behind, too, rather than deal with an unruly kid. Of course, I’m not about to walk out while standing in the checkout line, and The Big-Eyed Boy probably knows that. He also knows, though, that if he misbehaves while we’re standing there he’s not going to hear the end of it on our ride home.

    Like Anwyn, I cringe at the kiddie leashes. There’s just no substitute for a watchful parent and, although it can be stressful, a parent’s “NO!” is the first step to teaching a child to stay close and behave. Leashes don’t teach that. Kim’s use of pretend “glue” does — while also teaching a valuable lesson about self-motivated impulse control.

    But “release”? That just gives me the creeps.

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