This essay is about parenting, power and control, about how to be comfortable exerting power over your child, and about knowing why and when and how to do it. It’s mainly about autistic children.
Everyone wants their child to be happy and successful, and I am assuming that is our common basis for what we do with our children. But there are some myths and fantasies about the nature of happiness and success that can get in the way.
What are the myths about happiness?
First, there is the widespread assumption that children need to reach developmental milestones on time, and that will help them be happy and successful. If a child is not talking by 18 months, parents may feel that something has to be done about it. If they are below grade level, not making friends when their age-mates are, or not interacting the way you expect, then you may feel they are behind. It may be impossible to imagine how someone could grow up and have a career and be independent when they aren’t talking or won’t do school work, and the tendency is to focus on the milestone that they are not meeting, and push them along towards those desired life markers.
In earlier times, people could compare their children’s development with only a few others, and perhaps there has always been social pressure and theories about the best way to raise a child, but now we have something new – statistics based on millions of children. Psychologists have observed countless children and figured out exactly when they say their first word, start walking, and so on – on average. The more we know about averages, the more the differences between our own children and averages seem to be magnified. Then we may want to make those differences go away. Ironically, the more we know about the science of development, the less we accept variation.
It is an error in thinking to to interpret the scientific observations of averages in child development as if they are prescriptions for each child. With my daughter, this error was first applied in the second trimester of her fetal development. The midwife had a chart of weight gain by week of pregnancy, and the numbers on that chart were derived from averages from observation of a great many pregnancies. The midwife tested the weight gain of the baby and said she was below the normal line, and therefore (and here is the error), she should be made to gain more weight. According to the midwife, not being normal was itself the problem. Although it is true that slow weight gain can be a red flag or an indicator of some potentially threatening condition, that was not the concern of the midwife, and there were no tests made for any such condition. She just wanted the fetus to be normal. She suggested that the mother eat more ice cream, as a way to change the number, regardless of the actual health effect of that approach. Had all that scientific data not been available, that mistake could not have been made.
From pregnancy on, professionals are always telling us what normal is (because science is good at that), and we are getting more and more detailed about how normal development is defined. But we need to understand that all of these details, while they may be interesting, are averages and not prescriptions.
Happiness does not come from being normal or average. (Have you met someone who claims their happiness comes from being normal or average?) People are happy when they are moving on their growth path, not when their appearances are measuring up to a psychologist-defined growth path.
One of the dangers of a focus on milestones is that when the child “fails” to meet them, the focus of intervention becomes failure-oriented or remedial. Once we start believing something is wrong, we focus on the failure instead of the success, and that kind of environment programs failure into the child. To repeat, the myth is that all children supposedly need to reach the developmental milestones that are derived from population averages. The reality is that each persons path is different, and variance from averages is not failure. This is true regardless of the amount of variance – a person who appears (from the outside) to be extremely autistic is no more or less a failure on their path than anyone else, and they are not necessarily any less happy because of their not meeting your milestone expectations.
So far I’ve been talking about the first of six myths – the myth that happiness comes from normal development.
A second myth is that interfering with a child’s natural development is hurtful. The logic of this myth is that there is a “natural” expression of needs, and it is the parents’ job to set up an environment where the child is free to be anything they want to be, or even do anything they want. In the extreme, this leads to parents being unwilling to impose anything for fear of squashing the child’s creativity. Practicalities of this approach aside, it is based on a false assumption that people are primarily separate individuals. People are largely formed by relationships, and there is no such thing as an interference-free developmental path. You can choose how to relate, but choosing not to relate is abandonment. Their happiness and basis of success in life grows from your love and your happiness, not from a lack of structure. Living in highly structured rule-bound environments does not prevent happiness.
A third myth is that suffering is bad and should be avoided. This leads some parents to carefully choreograph the children’s lives to avoid any pain and suffering. Anyone who has had their lives so arranged finds their source of suffering somewhere, anyway. Suffering does not block happiness; we need both. And we need practice with both.
A fourth myth is that having material success, ease, affluence, or other benefits given to you leads to happiness. If you believe this, you may have wondered why, in pictures of African villages where the life expectancy is very low and people have very few material comforts, they often seem to be happy. It’s not an illusion; happiness comes from the spiritual and relational dimensions; not from stuff. And, it comes from the movement and the work, not from the arrival. Unhappy people who suddenly get things, or even win a lottery, do not necessarily become happy. People who work for things, or who work through their suffering, can be happy because of the movement that they experience towards their successes.
A fifth myth is that success is externally measured – such as income and job titles. If you want your child to really be happy, you will want them to be successful in whatever way they measure that internally. Success is connecting the inner story to meeting needs, so that she is the agent who makes sure her needs are met. A person feels successful and happy when advancing towards their dreams, not when advancing towards society’s idealized concept of success.
And the final myth is that when parents selflessly sacrifice their own lives to devote everything to the children, that this benefits the children. The reality is that happiness does not transmit that way; it is more of a two way relationship that depends on the parents’ happiness. It’s also not a reasonable goal to fix their life at the expense of yours; both of you need a life that works for both of you.
People grow up to be successful adults after they have been successful at being children. The rest of this chapter will go over control techniques and the reasons for them, geared towards success in the present, which will invariably set the stage for success in the future.
How much control do parents need?
There are two dimensions of control that need consideration: what aspect of their life is under your control, and how absolute that control is.
- You can control behavior, but not motivations, desires, feelings or any other mental state. You can never control who someone is, only what they do. Trying to make them be someone is damaging.
- Within the realm of behavior, you can only control the two margins: the minimum required and the maximum allowed. It is impossible and damaging to try to control behavior that falls between the two margins.
To make this clear, here is an example of a guest coming over. The child has a minimum required set of actions – such as: she must say hello, she must sit at the table, and so on. Your minimums depend on who you are and who she is, but the important things is they are actions, not internals. You can’t require her to like the guest or to want dessert. Some children cannot say hello or sit at the table, so of course your particular minimums depend on that. You also have maximum limits: she may not make excessive noise, or hit or insult people. Again those maximums depend on who you are.
There are potentially a lot of things that could be beyond the limits, that you reasonably need control over, like poor manners, soaking up all your time, destruction of things, and when she eats and sleeps. She has to be safe, and others need to be safe from her. You need to balance her needs with yours. All of this control is in the margins, which should ideally cover only 25-50% of her life. In other words you prioritize safety and other major things, and you only control part of what she does, and you drop the small stuff. This leaves the rest of her time to her, which I will call the joyful middle.
The joyful middle
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