This post is part of a series called “Motherhood Mantras.” To read more about the series, and the full list of writers, click here.
I Can Only Control Myself
When my eldest was a baby, I looked at him and had such a difficult time imagining him ever doing anything wrong. Intellectually, I knew that he would turn into a toddler and that he would someday be a teenager. I knew he would develop a mind of his own and want to do all kinds of things I didn’t want him to do. I knew it in my head, but I had a hard time imagining it.
Fast-forward almost three years and I struggle on a daily basis with my child’s choices and behavior. There’s nothing wrong with him, mind you. He’s just a typical almost-three year old. He has a mind of his own now. He knows what he wants to do and when he wants to do it and, quite often, it doesn’t fall in line with my own plans.
My husband and I both do our level best to parent our children gently and with respect. There is no corporal punishment in our family or name-calling. We don’t demean our children. We do our very best to discipline (teach) them in ways that honor their dignity and build them up. But, I’ll be totally honest, I do sometimes lose my temper and yell. I’m not proud of it. In fact, it eats me up. I hate myself after I’ve lost my temper and shouted. I know that I don’t like to be yelled at and I don’t want my children to be treated that way.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that really sends me over the edge – what throws me into a tantrum. It almost always has something to do with this issue of control. When I want my child to do something and he refuses to cooperate, I can keep my cool for a while. I start out by asking nicely, then rationalizing, then cajoling, then making it into a game, and on and on. But, eventually, I start to feel my blood boiling and that’s when I know it’s not going to end calmly. I knew I needed a mantra. Something I could insert into that particular moment, when my temperature stared to rise, to cool myself down.
You’ve heard people say, “Just walk away.” “Take three deep breaths.” Well, I tried all of that, but none of it was working for me. I tried a few of my own self-made calming mantras, “You’re the adult.” “He’s only two.” “This, too, shall pass.” “This won’t matter tomorrow.” Sad to say – none of them worked.
And then, last week, out of the blue, a new mantra came to me from beyond myself. “You can only control yourself.”
I can only control myself. That’s all there is to it. I cannot control my child. It’s not my job. My job is to help him learn how to control himself. And I can’t do that if I’m trying to control him.
I was shocked at how quickly this mantra began to heal our relationship. I can say it to myself when I’m starting to feel angry and immediately begin to feel calm. Better yet, I explained the mantra to my child and it really seems to be helping him with his own behavior, too. In a moment of calm connection, I explained to him that when I get mad, I have to remind myself that I can’t control him, that I can only control myself. I told him that he’s the only one who can control himself. He really seemed to like this idea. I think it made him feel bigger and stronger.
So much of parenting a toddler or preschooler is about power and control. Just as they are struggling to learn autonomy and be in control of themselves, we are constantly taking away their power because it’s inconvenient to us. Even parents who try to give their child choices every day still make thousands of tiny choices for their child each day.
But, deep down inside, I believe young children want to do the right thing. They want to make life harmonious. They want to get along with their parents. They want to please the people that love them. It’s just human nature.
When my son and I are really struggling over something I need or want him to do, I say to him, “Gosh, I can’t control you, can I? Who’s the only person who can control you?” He says, “I’m the only person who can control me.” And, 90% of the time, he then ends up doing what I was hoping he’d do. I think it’s that sense of regaining control over himself, instead of being coerced or bullied into doing something, that frees him up and helps him make a good decision. I know that when I remember that I am in control of myself, it makes all the difference in the world. Calm descends and my brain starts working properly. I find the strength to be the parent I want to be.
Caela Simmons Wood wasn’t sure she would ever decide to be a mama, but is sure glad that she did! Her family here in Bloomington includes a rockstar husband, David (actually a classically-trained musician) two sons born in 2010 and 2012, and beagle, Yankee. She balances motherhood with her other calling in life, pastoring a church. David and Caela are originally from Kansas, where they met at church and dated in high school. They are both graduates of Kansas State University (go CATS!) and spent a few years in Texas before moving to Bloomington. A self-professed “crunchy-granola-bleeding-heart-liberal-tree-hugger-radical feminist-vegetarian,” Caela has read entirely too many parenting books and actually enjoys them.