The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires


What is parental control? Is it positive or negative for children? What makes parents controlling with their children, even when they value supporting children's autonomy? Are there alternatives to control and how might we apply them in important domains of children's lives, such as school and sports? This book addresses these and other questions about the meaning and predictors of parental control, as well as its consequences for children's adjustment and well-being. While the topic of parental control is not new, there has been controversy about the concept, with some researchers and clinicians weighing in on the side of control and others against it. This book argues that part of the controversy stems from different uses of the term, with some investigators focusing more on parents being in control and others on controlling children. Using a definition of control as "pressure for children to think, feel, or behave in specific ways," the author explores research on parental control, arguing that there is more consensus than previously thought. Using this research base, the author provides evidence that parental control can be subtle and can lurk within many "positive" parenting approaches; parental control undermines the very behaviors we wish to inculcate in our children; providing autonomy support--the opposite of control--is a challenge, even when parents are committed to doing so.

With controversy in the literature about parental control and attention in the media on the ways in which parents step over the control line (e.g., screaming on the soccer sidelines, pressuring children in academics), this book is especially timely. It provides an empathic view of how easily parents can become trapped in controlling styles by emphasizing performance and hooking their own self-esteem on children's performance. Examples of how this can happen in academic, sporting, and peer situations with their emphasis on competition and hierarchy are provided, as well as strategies for parenting in highly involved but autonomy supportive ways.

A highly readable yet research-based treatment of the topic of parental control, this book:

• explores the controversial topic of parental control; addresses controversy about the positive and negative effects of parental control; and disentangles various parenting concepts, such as involvement, structure, and control;

• illustrates how control can be overt, such as in the use of corporal punishment or covert, as in the use of controlling praise;

• provides evidence that control may produce compliance in children preventing them from initiating and taking responsibility for their own behavior;

• explores why parents are controlling with their children, including environmental and economic stresses and strains, characteristics of children that "pull" for control, and factors in parents' own psychologies that lead them to be "hooked" on children's performance; and

• provides examples of control in the areas of academics and sports--the hierarchical and competitive nature of these domains is seen as contributing to parents' tendencies to become controlling in these areas.


When Courtney brought her home report card with three Cs—two more than in the previous grading period-her parents were upset. Feeling they had to act quickly to be sure Courtney did better the next time, they came up with a "positive approach. " Signing the report card the following morning, her mother made an announcement: "For every A you bring home next grading period, I'll give you $10," she told Courtney. "For every B, $5."

Lily's parents were shocked and dismayed when her report card turned up with all those Cs. They told her how disappointed they were. "We were very displeased last grading period. You let us down again." For the next few days, the atmosphere in Lily's house was noticeably chilly. Her parents spoke only to answer questions. Their plan was to get to Lily. By behaving this way, they were trying to convey just how distressed they were.

What do these approaches have in common? In each scenario the parents are concerned and involved. They are taking action in order to change the situation. But which of these responses is controlling? The first one, a positive approach that uses rewards, or the second one, which employs a negative approach, using criticism in order to evoke guilt? According to many people, the latter example would clearly fall into the "controlling" category, for there is some, although not complete, consensus that critical, hostile behavior with the threat of withdrawal of love is controlling (e.g., B. K. Barber, 1996).

Consider, however, Courtney's parents' solution to the dilemma of the lackluster report card. They decided to use positive reinforcement. Praise, rewards, and positive reinforcement are often considered conducive to children's development.

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