Compliance and the Illusion of Control

Slippery Wet. This image is CC0!

What is worse — doing something right for the wrong reasons or doing it wrong for the right reasons?

Whenever we want somebody else to do something and we are in a position of power that question comes up. It is seductive to set up a system of compliance and control, leading to one of the two scenarios behind that question.

If you have children, you know the problem. There are a lot of things parents want children to do (or not to do) that are not really attractive to the child. To name a few:

  • Going to bed on time
  • Tidying the room
  • Brushing the teeth
  • Doing school’s home assignments
  • Looking left and right before crossing the street
  • Not sticking things into the AC power socket
  • Following the family rules

The source of this quote is a fictitious character in a novel by Rachel Bach, but that does not make it wrong. Like every parent, I catch myself in situations which could be explained by this vicious cycle: the more I struggle to keep control, the more likely it is that I will lose it.

The challenges if you try to enforce some form of compliance are these:

  1. Things are done grudgingly, reducing the overall willingness to do useful things. (Like following the family house rules, but complaining all the time.)
  2. Things are done at the latest possible moment, increasing the risk of failure and rework waste. (Like home assignments done in a hush.)
  3. Things are done formally correct, but subverting the intention. (Tidying the room by shoving everything under the bed.)
  4. Things are not done at all. (Like brushing the teeth.)
  5. Things are not done and this is actively hidden. (Like wetting the tooth brush instead of brushing the teeth.)

As you can see, counter-reactions can be problematic. The list is ordered by increasing degree of criticality.

The long term goal of raising a child is simple: parents want to prepare them for the days when they are leaving home and have to tackle life on their own. I know that the details vary, as well as the “true age” of being an adult. But even helicopter dads and mums have to come to terms with increasing independence of their children.

On the long road to that goal parents start with plain survival. That ranges from feeding a baby to preventing accidents. Since survival is a pre-condition for anything beyond (see the Maslow hierarchy of needs) it is also an issue of control.

All parents needs to learn that they cannot keep all dangers from their children. The opposite is the case. The longer children are protected, the later they learn to understand risks and act responsibly on their own. Even when it comes to plain survival, the scales need to tip more and more from control to empowerment.

With every other task a child has to perform, with every new challenge they come upon it is similar. You cannot control if your teenager still brushes his or her teeth. Even in first grade children need to learn accountability for their performance in school. You may want your child to take care of some pets. The list can be as long as you wish. But one problem remains:

In future posts I will discuss this deeper and add some solution ideas to the problem description.

How do you experience the Control Trilemma?

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