When I was growing up, my friends and family thought my parents were strict. Honestly, they weren’t. If my sisters and I wanted to do something, they mostly said yes. Certainly, there were some general things around the house like no phone calls after 10pm (which I still believe is a nice rule of thumb), early to bed, early to rise, minimal access to sugary stuff, go outside to play after homework was done…just what seemed normal to me. I had friends and family members whose parents were permissive, but honestly, I didn’t ask to do a lot of things because I didn’t have the interest to.
I wanted to do very well in school as a set up to college. I played some sports—not well, but I played. I was engaged in clubs and activities. As I got deep into high school, I had multiple jobs and internships. I was busy. I went to football and basketball games with friends, hung out a little late and enjoyed hitting the McDonalds on Parham Road or Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House on Rt. 1 until the wee hours –you know midnight!
Honestly, I didn’t feel deprived, and I didn’t feel like I was ever locked in a control battle with my parents. When I did something egregious, I was grounded. I knew it was coming, and frankly, calculated whether it was worth the inevitable punishment before doing it.
When I became a parent, I found myself expecting to roll into things much like my parents did. Boy was I shocked. Hope pushed all my buttons all the time. My reaction was to establish a bunch of arbitrary rules to try to create the structure that I had.
It took me a long time to understand that what I had growing up was structure, security, permanence, attachment, all basic needs consistently met, and relatively no threats to any of those things.
Hope had not had that, and back then, she didn’t trust me to provide it. The result was a huge mismatch of expectations resulting in awful behaviors that we both struggled with.
It took me months to realize that I couldn’t control my and Hope’s relationship or her reactions to being in what is now our home. That was hard because I am a control freak. I take pride in orchestrating a lot of my life, and Hope was having none of that.
The mistakes I made were countless.
Forcing her to say grace. Saying no to all her favorite (sugary, fatty, salty) foods. Extraordinary limits on screen time. Book reading time. Closed kitchen after 8pm. Eat this or nothing!
I have a number of regrets, though honestly, I am not sure I could’ve known better back then. I’d heard stuff, gone to the training, blah, blah, blah, but until I was in it and it wasn’t working? I wasn’t really trying to hear that swinging to the other end of the continuum was really the better option.
A few weeks into our journey together, Hope hit the skids and everything went topsy turvy. And while my girl was hella resilient, I was really the only one of us who had the capacity to really turn things around.
So, I had to stop trying to artificially create structure, security, permanence, attachment and meeting her needs through controlling behaviors. That’s when I started learning about connected parenting. Now, I still loathe all these crazy parenting theories and parenting books and coaching and all that stuff, but connected parenting helped me to understand that I needed to focus on Hope’s needs to help her feel safe and secure in our home.
I bought ramen, Fruit Loops, and bags of chips to go with the broccoli, clementines and orange juice. I let her listen to music all night long, even after her phone locked down at 9:30pm. I said the prayers at dinner. I gave her 24 hour access to certain foods to ease her fears about going hungry. I read bedtime stories to her like she was 5, followed by breathing exercises and tucking her in every night. I wrote out affirmations for her every day.
She still snuck food and left wrappers everywhere. Her room still looked like it had been ransacked. She still pushed boundaries, sneaking the laptop after I had fallen asleep so she could stay up all night watching videos. She still did inappropriate things on her phone that scared me to death.
And then one day, I noticed that she was far less likely to do any of those things. I realized that she didn’t need me to tuck her in because she came to me to say goodnight, get a kiss and retire on her own. She would go in the pantry and happily make herself some ramen and drink a tumbler of orange juice on the side. She might still break a rule or two, but she would remark how rude other kids were to their parents or how they were breaking rules and how she thought it was terrible.
Sure, I’ve had to mete out consequences, but had I kept on my control freak pathway, we would never have evolved to where we are now.
Hope and I talk about these moments these days, and we tease each other. I’m grateful that she practices grace with me and gets that I was figuring things out in the beginning.
My advice to newbies who are parenting older kids—give them what they need, which may be different than what you need or think is initially best. Our kids need lots of love, and they need to feel like they are seen, valued and worthy of being safe. Meet them exactly in that place. Get those favorite foods, be ok when they gain a little weight, make sure they know that they will not go hungry with you, avoid emotional tugs of war, side step controlling behavior. Recognize their agency and work on being persuasive instead of controlling. Build trust and watch it flourish. It all takes time and patience—something I am not full of—but it’s worth it.
I haven’t broken myself of being a control freak; I just know to limit it in my parenting now. Trust though, I continue to fail from time to time.