I’ll never forget my client who nearly lost her mind over the toothpaste in the sink.
Toothpaste Mom, as I affectionately remember her, was not much different from other parents. She had a picture in her mind of how she wanted her household to run. Being a mom of 4 children, she had a plan!
This plan included how the children were going to take care of their responsibilities. Cleaning, laundry, homework, daily chores, morning routine…all were part of Toothpaste Mom’s plan.
Except more often than not, things didn’t go according to plan. The breaking point for Toothpaste Mom was when they all went to leave for work and school. One of Toothpaste Mom’s rules:
- After the kids brushed their teeth, they needed to clean the sink out.
And what little gift did Toothpaste Mom seem to find on a daily basis in the bathroom sink? You guessed it: toothpaste.
Why oh why weren’t things going according to Toothpaste Mom’s plan?
Can We Really Control Our Children?
We all have pictures in our minds of how we want things to be at home with our families. Parents (including me!) have detailed pictures of the life they want for their children. We want them to be safe, happy, and on the path to success as they grow up.
“Out of picture” moments is when reality doesn’t match up with those pictures. It always seems to happen at the most inconvenient times, doesn’t it? Like when you’re rushing out the door in the morning for school. Most parents, including Toothpaste Mom, do the best they can on the fly.
My question for you is: can Toothpaste Mom really control whether her children leave toothpaste in the sink?
Can any parent control what their child does or doesn’t do?
This is where parenting splits into two distinct schools of thought.
Theory #1: Yes, You Can Get Control of Your Child
One theory argues that if we have the right strategies and are forceful, assertive, and acting in a take-charge way, we can get control of those kids!
Countless books, websites, expert opinions, and references from behavioral specialists advance this idea. If the carrot is big enough, these sources say, we can make anyone do “it.”
And by “it” I mean chores, getting to school on time, doing homework, cleaning bedrooms…cleaning the toothpaste from the sink!
Implicit in this theory is that if your child isn’t doing what you want, you’re not trying hard enough.
I don’t know about you, but I would not want to be the one to tell Toothpaste Mom she wasn’t trying hard enough. She had very thorough, detailed plans, and she was vigilant about them.
Theory #2: You Can’t Control Other People, Including Your Children
The other school of thought argues that parents, just like everyone else, are only in control of their own behavior and choices. You can’t directly control your child, or anyone else for that matter!
Your children, just like you, have the ability to choose and think for themselves. If they choose to do “it” it’s because they see a good enough reason for doing it.
Now your child’s reason for doing it might just be to get you off their back! Or, in the case of Toothpaste Mom, her children were sending the message that they can’t be controlled.
Do you feel frustrated reading that?
Or maybe do you feel relieved? Because if you haven’t been able to control your child…now you know why, and it’s not your fault.
The High Cost of Being in Control
Control, like in theory number one, can turn into coercion. Every time a parent yells at, threatens, and punishes their child, that creates distance between the two of them. The relationship isn’t fun anymore.
So whatever happened to Toothpaste Mom?
She didn’t crack – don’t worry! Together, she and I figured out how she could keep her household running and keep a strong relationship with her children.
- Her attempts to control her children were destined to fail
- They led to damaging results
- She was only in control of her own behavior
- She could only control how she herself responded to the toothpaste in the sink, and other times when her internal pictures of a happy household weren’t being met
I recall asking her at one point, “Is the toothpaste in the sink worth more than the relationship you have with your children?”
“Of course not!” she said. “Are you crazy?”
I asked her, “So when you see the toothpaste in the sink tomorrow, right there in your face, for the 100th time…what are you going to do differently?”
She thought for a bit and replied, “I’ll leave it there and not say a word about it.”
Does This Mean My Children Can Get Away with Everything?
No. Understanding what you can and control does not mean you are giving your children the green light to trample over your master plans.
Instead, it’s about changing your internal pictures to match reality. If it worked for Toothpaste Mom…