I’m teaching my oldest son to drive. Which is to say, my prayer life is thriving. I’m sure there are gems squirreled away in the whole process about parenting and control. But mostly, I just reflexively press my right foot into the floorboards as if an imaginary brake will save us all.
Our state requires 30 hours of online driving school and a year of 50 hours of permit-driving before my son holds a shiny, terrifying license in his hand. Meanwhile, I must expose him to as many real-life situations as I can (Rain! Interstates! Traffic jams! Slow-moving pedestrians!) before he commandeers the wheel, solo, of a killing machine traveling at 65 mph, complete with Spotify blasting “Highway through the Danger Zone” and a Big Mac dripping from his hand.
At some point, I have to hand over the keys and not be in the passenger seat—unless I want to chauffeur his minivan when he’s 40. In general, it is good my son learns.
But the stakes, for him and that oncoming car with toddlers in the back, are high.
Moving from control to influence
Toting pink, raisin-y bundles home from the hospital, I thought I’d raise my kids till they were 18. No one told me control would diminish significantly starting around 13.
And honestly? In adolescence, parenting should shift from control to influence.
It’s the reason I’m taking a cue from what my parents did. In my son’s senior year, he will likely have no curfews or other rules: a year under our roof, before college, test-driving life without our control. (We’ll still be coaching him, stepping in if things go off-roading.)
He’s shifting from life in the car seat to life at the wheel.
And I’m realizing it’s not just the destination–my kids’ good choices–that’s important, but how they get there. (If that were the case, the car seat is by far easiest.) It’s how they journey to that choice. The development of the character to make those choices for a lifetime.
With the Pharisees, Jesus was all about the heart rather than appearances: “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26). Backing off crippling control means my kids’ hearts have a chance to develop from the inside out … even if that path involves failure.
The father of the prodigal in Luke 15 could’ve skipped to the party at the end—but this particular son needed to experience the hunger, the journey away and back.
What keeps us holding on too long?
See, even if my older kids surrender to metaphorically keeping me at the wheel, outward compliance doesn’t develop critical ownership, maturity, life skills, an ear to the Holy Spirit within them. They rely on me too long (picture a teen riding a bike with training wheels, or worse, being pulled in a wagon by their parent).
So when it comes to parenting and control, what keeps us in the driver’s seat longer than we should?
1. Our pride.
What battles aren’t really that big of a deal, or are even connected to how others see you? (Think: daughter pleading for indigo-blue hair.)
Far more important than my kids being my mini-me are the words of Proverbs 23:26: “My son, give me your heart.”
I could allow nonessentials to wedge themselves between my kids’ hearts and mine … at which point I lose passport to exercise influence or simply convey love and connection they can’t get elsewhere.
Lessening other forms of control could result in embarrassment. Yes, we want to train our kids to honor their parents! Yes, it’s important to teach them adept social skills. But the sooner we can set aside image as what drives us, the easier it is to focus on what’s happening in our kids’ hearts and not work against the good God’s creating there.
For example, if you’ve got a kid crawling back from a season away from God but you’re constantly nitpicking about her language, you could miss an opportunity to walk alongside her, discussing her questions and pain.
2. Our vision.
My son has sights set on the Marines. I, however, am peacekeeping and diplomatic to a fault. I can count on one hand the times I’ve shot a gun (i.e., summer camp).
But recently, I felt as if God asked me, What if I created your son as a warrior? (And not just metaphorically?) What if for My kingdom, I need exactly his strength, his independence, his love for justice and intellectual argument?
God loved and rewarded the warrior King David, a man after God’s heart—God, who describes Himself as a warrior.
At times, I have loved my own image for my son more than God’s image for him.
God may not share my vision or timing or pictured journey or occupation or personality for my child. But I can’t write His vision off (created as part of the body of Christ) as less (see 1 Corinthians 12:17-19).
Let’s not miss loving our kids as God created them. Let’s help them dream bigger than our vision.
3. Our fear.
My worst parenting and control emerge through fear—rather than wisdom, patience, faith, and thoughtfully loving my kids. Don’t mistake my overprotectiveness for appropriate nurture.
In my own fear, I move from monitoring the grades, the texts, the screens … into my default. That’s rule-making mode (i.e., “That was close! Move over. I’m driving now!”), rather than grappling with the heart: “Let’s talk about what happened, talk about the person you want to be, and make a plan we both buy into.”
In what feels like good parenting, we might control outcomes or consequences to protect kids and us from failure. (Pro tip: Hold a horse too tightly, it bucks.) Sadly, we also protect kids from rich lessons of resilience. Problem-solving. Competence and confidence learned only from overcoming. Our own trust in them.
And we forget: Only God can change our kids at the heart level (see 1 Corinthians 3:6).
4. Our desire for perfection.
One author at DesiringGod.com writes, “I know parents who require perfection from their children. Failure is not an option. Demanding heaven on earth from them, they make it hell instead, squeezing, scolding, and cajoling them into the very sense of failure they’re desperate to help them avoid.”
But homes revolving around Jesus realize He’s the one who “receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). In contrast to Pharisees who relied on status-upholding performance, superiority, and separation from the unholy masses—we create an environment fertile for the gospel when we all come as we are, not as we wish we were.
The culture of hustle, of be-better-do-better, stops here.
Worse, when it comes to parenting and control, our “obedient” kids can develop people-pleasing that subverts God-pleasing (see Galatians 1:10). They can leave unhealthy levels of control in our hands because it’s easier.
We shelter beneath unshakable trust not in perfection, but God—beneath that spacious place to grow and change that is grace. (If it’s hard to extend your kids’ grace, is it time to look deeper about whether you know it intimately?)
See, if my kids get the idea they must be x—even if x is “that shiny, polite Christian kid”—I add to what’s required for them to be accepted by God. I’m saying Jesus isn’t enough.
My kids’ security blooms from their unconditional acceptance in God, granting courage to move out on their own. And they can glimpse that through me.
Parenting and control: When should I hold back?
I want to work with the Holy Spirit and His pace in my kids’ lives, their particular point in their unique spiritual journeys. As my husband points out, if a kid is struggling with depression or addiction, you don’t hassle them about wearing their jeans too low.
Consider a personal trainer. Some people, when you push too hard, would rather sink back on the couch with the remote and a bag of chips. Others eat up your HIIT routine and ask for more.
But as a personal trainer? Don’t mix these people up.
I need to have heartfelt, listening conversations about what’s going on inside them—the struggles, fears, insecurities, losses, temptations—rather than just laying down the law. I may need to push through the drama (hysterics, hormones, eye rolling, etc.) to listen to the need.
I’m all for healthy boundaries, of saying no, of managing our households well. But as kids grow to be adults, let’s take the passenger seat a little more. And maybe even try to restrain grabbing the panic handle.
Let’s sit alongside, preparing them to drive in every kind of weather.
Copyright © 2021 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.