What Are We Teaching Our Children About Power and Self-Control?

What are we teaching our children about power and self-control?

Why do so many young men value respect above life and liberty? How far has the prison culture value system penetrated our collective psyche? Is our obsession with respect really about respect or is it about delusions of power that are reinforced by our society?

Many evenings, a dozen 11-14 year-old boys play street hockey in the cul-de-sac in front of my house, which means I need to drive through their game to get home. The boys don’t get out of my way as quickly as I’d like and some stare at me with a look that seems to say, “yeah, whadda you lookin at.” Sometimes they fight, play rap music, and leave their equipment in the street but none of these boys has ever shown overt disrespect to my family or me.

In prison culture (not that I’ve been there – I’ve just read about it) there is a slang term called “slow-playing.” Slow-playing is when a guard commands a prisoner to do something and he complies, but he does it as slow as possible. Most 4-year-olds slow-play their parents daily. Prisoners and toddlers slow-play for the same reasons – it gives them the delusion of power and control in an imbalanced power structure. The next time someone slow-plays you remember it isn’t about you, it’s a warning sign that the person slow-playing you feels subjugated and powerless in relation to you. They aren’t doing it to make you feel bad, they are doing it to make themselves feel powerful.

So why do some boys in my neighborhood feel the need to resort to infantile tactics to feel a sense of power in their lives? Maybe a better question is… Why do so many young males feel powerless? They’ll never admit that they feel powerless, but they do, and powerless young males are at the root of most of our social problems.

I love the boys playing hockey in the cul-de-sac – I’d like to join them – I want my boys to play hockey in the cul-de-sac – that’s why I bought a house on a cul-de-sac. Fighting and rap music don’t bother me… when I was 13 it would have been fighting, cigarettes, heavy metal, and hardcore punk, so in some ways they’ve made a step forward.

But at least one neighbor finds the fighting, music, and slow-playing unacceptable. She is in constant conflict with the boys. Yesterday when she backed out of the driveway, a drama unfolded when the boys cleared the cul-de-sac running to the curb and hailing her like a queen as she drove by. When she saw the sarcasm, she stopped and lit into them.

I agree with her that the boys should be courteous and respectful, but treating them with more disrespect only digs the hole deeper, escalating the conflict and providing them with further justification for feeling powerless. Smiling, laughing, and winking at them may have been a better reaction. What do you think?

I’ve concluded that believing you can control others is delusional. The only control that exists in reality is self-control. Yes, your parents, the police, the government, or your God may be authorities in your life, but that is only because you have granted them the authority. Ultimately, they can’t make you do a thing. They can give you incentives to do something or they can threaten, detain, torture, or kill you if you don’t do something, but the choice is still yours, albeit under duress.

I once read a study of parenting styles by economic class. It found that poor and working class families stressed blind patriarchal obedience, while upper middle class and wealthy families stressed self-control. At first glance, it appears that obedience and self-control are almost the same, but they aren’t. Obedience acts in blind fear of a threatening external power structure, and treats the individual as inherently flawed and incapable of self-restraint. Self-control is intuitively making the right decision in a situation regardless of external incentives or threats.

How do we instill self-control in young people? Where does it come from? I don’t know. I’d like to read your thoughts.

22 thoughts on “What Are We Teaching Our Children About Power and Self-Control?”

  1. This concept parallels a lot of the other issues you’ve brought up with our society.

    Do we teach people not to use alcohol and drugs, or to use them in moderation through self-control and for personal reasons, or do we force them not to use alcohol and drugs through laws and by attempting to influence them externally?

    Do we teach people about reading, writing, history and mathematics through self-motivated, internal exploration, or do we force them to learn these things through lectures and external direction?

    Do we teach people to use lawn darts safely, through self-policing because its in their own good, or do we force them not to use lawn darts by banning them outright and externally influencing their behavior?

    People feel out of control, powerless and disrespected because the government is bossing them around in every minute aspect of their life.

  2. Riley,

    Excellent comment…

    Unfortunately, I think far to many of our young people are taught – by observation and experience – that real power is force and threat directed against others, but like I said it is a delusion, the only real power you have is over your own actions. This situation also reinforces the belief that your life is out of your control, and that the only way to control it is to dominate others just as they attempt to dominate you, which just keeps repeating in a vicious circle.

  3. I think your seperation of “obedience” from “self-control” is crucial to understanding the problem, but I can’t admit to any solutions.

    However an important foundation to self-control is self-respect, and within a lop-sided power situation, self-respect is the first thing to shatter (if it was ever there to begin with). A huge hurdle for people working with under-priveleged (read: poor) youth is their lack of self-respect; they see their families as poor and powerless in a variety of situations and internalize that. A person who feels no power within themselves cannot manifest power over themselves, and so reaches out to try to grab whatever power they can. A vicious cycle.

    But identifying the problem is not a solution, although it is important. Everything I’ve read shows that a good step is to empower such persons with the “high” of accomplishment — whether it is to get their high school degree, or learn to dance, or win a contest, just anything that builds self-confidance and self-worth. Only then will a person believe themselves to be important enough to try to control.

    Easier said than done, I suspect.

  4. To find out how to instill self-control into other people, think of how you gained that ability yourself. Do you remember? You were once young yourself, weren’t you? How did you learn it?

    I don’t know the meaning of self-control, and I’m not sure whether I’ve even learnt it yet. But I do know it is a part of becoming a more independant person. Parents are supposed to teach their children to be that.

  5. I have mentored kids 7 to 18 for over 20 years. I find that the biggest mistake people make is to treat chidren as stupid. Adults tend to treat children as pawns in their little game.

    Kids sense this. They feel like they have no cotrol or power and, as a result, value. If you treat them with respect and let them know that you believe in them and their abilites they will respond in a positive way. Let them know that you are there to help them when they struggle and they will excel as they tackle challenges they otherwise would avoid.

    Explain why certian restrictions or rules benefit them, society or some other group and they will comply and even enforce it themselves. Kids don’t hate rules, they just hate rules without reason.

    This is not to say they should not have a healthy respect for your authority. On the contrary, that is something we all need to enforce. But I find that if you take the approach I outlined above, your implied authority is no longer an issue. In fact it is reinforced.

    In most cases kids understand that adults have more experience and are wiser so they are willing to follow. They just want to know that they are not being taken for granted and that we truly believe that they have something to offer.

  6. Self-control–self-mastery–is at once the most difficult lesson to learn, the most difficult to practice, and the most important ability in life.

    Most parents don’t teach it because they don’t know it themselves; they haven’t developed the ability either.

    I think part of the problem is that most kids have put respect for themselves way below material things in their hierarchy of values. They haven’t been taught–they haven’t seen–that material things come as a result of self-control and self-respect, not the other way around.

    Excellent post, Steve, and as usual, great insight.

  7. We are all taught to gain power by exerting more control over outside circumstances. From closing in on yourself and becoming more draconian in your financial practices in an attempt to gain control over them, to turning the screws on an employee that seems to be getting out of control.

    We seldom think in terms of more freedom as a means to solve a problem. Take the financial situation. If I suggested that part (and I emphasize the word part) of the solution could be giving yourself permission to indulge, there would be widespread outcry. Yet we, myself included, follow a cycle of binge and purge when it comes to finances.

    I’m trying this new approach myself, in all areas of my life. It take a lot more monitoring, discipline, and responsibility to allow myself freedom than it does to enforce more and more rules. The best part is that the benefits are broader, and bigger.

    When you feel small, you have a need to make others feel small so you can then feel big. But this cycle only causes life to close in around you. Unfortunately, there is not much support to live bigger and helping people to become more responsible with it. Maybe things are designed that way, but at this point I think we are like fleas in a jar. The lids been lifted, but we still think we are limited.

    In Spirit,

  8. Steve, as usual a very thought provoking post. As a public school teacher, I witness “slow-playing” all the time. Like you it doesn’t offend me. It’s basically a passive-aggressive way of registering opposition to authority, just as you said. Why do young men feel powerless? Like a lot of things you and I both write about, our educational system is partly to blame. Partly it’s this insanity of adolescence being at odds with adulthood, instead of a gateway to adulthood. (Which in my view has something to do with factory-based education where we lump one or two hundred kids all the same age together, and then we wonder why they can’t grow up.)

  9. A social worker I knew takes kids who are in trouble with the law (or near to it) rock climbing and caving. I love this idea because it gives them a challenge outside themselves; one that they can’t intimidate or fight in the traditional way (because the mountain doesn’t care). To win, they have to master themselves, and usually their fear, and when they do they get the real “high” of acheivement that a previous comment mentioned. Thinking about it in the context of your post, I can now see that it shows the kids how to master themselves through self-control and control of their fears. And man, if you can beat a mountain, you can beat anything 🙂

    I really hope he’s still doing it – social workers have a really high burnout rate.

  10. I very much like the explanation of “slow-playing”. I appreciate that – it is a great way of illustrating this attitude.

    They aren’t doing it to make you feel bad, they are doing it to make themselves feel powerful. I’m not sure of the truth of this statement. In the very young, I can see your point – especially if “feel powerful” is synonymous with “grasping for independence” – but in young adults, and the prison population, to make yourself feel powerful, surely there is an inherent desire to make the other person feel bad.

    Your neighbour’s reaction is exactly what they expect. I imagine she embodies their view of how all adults view them. I’m not sure that she is doing your neighbourhood much good.

    Why do so many young males feel powerless? How do we instill self-control in young people? Where does it come from?

    I think Dan Kindlon & Michael Thompson strive hard to provide the answer in their book Raising Cain – Protecting The Emotional Life Of Boys In it they say, “We expect too much, and we expect too little, of boys – we demand more at times than they are developmentally able to give while at the same time lowering expectations of self-control, empathy, emotional honesty and moral responsibility.”

    These are Kindlon and Thompson’s 7 points, What Boys Need.

    1. Permission for an internal life, approval for the full range of human emotions and help in developing an emotional vocabulary.

    2. Recognise and accept the high level of activity in boys.

    3. Talk to boys in their language. Be direct with them. Use them as consultants and problem solvers.

    4. Teach boys that emotional courage is courage, and that courage and empathy are the sources of real strength in life.

    5. Use discipline to build character and conscience, not enemies.

    6. Model a manhood of emotional attachment.

    7. Teach boys that there are many ways to be a man.

    Young men need their feelings accepted and validated, the whole range of emotions. There is a danger of boys becoming emotionally illiterate. With empathy this can be avoided.

  11. Gee, my thought was that if you went out and offered them some cookies and aksed a little about their music, they’d probably decide you were ok and would get out of the way, ’cause, you know “he’s cool.” It may be too late for the neighbor lady to do that, though, as it would probably look like she was just “giving in” and might compound the whole power issue. On the other hand, if she had started off by saying “hi,” giving a little wave, or even showing some sort of interest in the boys, they might well never have decided there was a power struggle in the first place. Just treating someone with respect is often enough to get them to do the same for you.

  12. Developing an emotional vocabulary as means of teaching self control to boys, what a fascinating concept. Every time I think about self control I can’t help thinking of Pinochio listening to Gemini Cricket’s wise words. Do what you want or do what you should ? If self control is the inner dialogue between careless desire and wishful becoming being able to speak clearly with your inner ideals is the key to turning boys into men, the key to turning noise into prayers, individualism into humanity.

  13. I have a son who is now 21 and I remember him as a 13-14 year old —-it wasn’t great! He and his friends have grown into decent young men – which of course is the case for most boys the world over. Personally -as a Mum – I think boys need even more love than ever at that age ( I don’t mean hugs and kisses though in their place they can be very powerful symbols of love) from all of us. I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many boys of the 13-15 age group over the past
    few years and I have had some of the most memorable conversations in my life with some of them. I recall a time last year when I was working with a group whose natural leader – a boy of 14 – emerged and dealt with conflict, feedback and taking responsiblity in a way that would put many “grown ups” to shame.
    This does not mean that the thump of a basketball against the wall or getting soccer balls out of my garden or backchat and foul language don’t annoy me…of course they do. But let’s cut these guys some slack here!
    Love the blog Steve.

  14. You know, I think the person who posted about the social worker who took kids on adventure trips is on to something. I have 3 boys in my household and lately I’ve begun to think that their use of video games is substituting for the real adventures they need in order to learn things like self-control, courage, confidence, etc. So, I’ve begun to shut down the access to the ‘net and gaming consoles in an effort to force them into the physical world.

  15. that’s a big question…I will add my coment based on the first thing that popped into my head…teach self control by SHOWING self control. It is impossible to be perfect, but try. It gets easier to strive for constant control when you have a small child who does an almost imediate play-back of what they just saw you do. There’s a series of commercials out right now and one of them shows a little girl telling her mom that ‘She’ll handle this one.” She gets out of the car and starts telling off the driver who just cut them off. Kids learn from a lot of places. As a parent it starts with me!

  16. There is a ton of reasearch done on self control. The term usually used is impulse control. If you google teaching children impulse control you will get lots of good information.

  17. I believe that self control is learned by feeling the pain of the consequences that occur from the lack of self-control. If we try to control our children too much when they are young, they end up learning these lessons after they leave home…i.e.;they were cheated out of making mistakes during their younger years to be able to learn by. If we, as parents and mentors, set a strong example of self-control and then loosen up the rope with our children, we are allowing them to grow..and to acquire the coping skills and self control needed for adulthood. Nice article. I enjoyed reading it.

  18. I have a four year old who slow-plays constantly and I stumbled upon this article while trying to find an answer to her lack of obedience. After reading this article I am convinced that my daughter struggles with power, not obedience and that, maybe, my husband and I need to change our view of parenting with her. Well, I’ve exhausted so many other options that it’s worth a shot. If anyone has any ideas for how I can teach her not to “slow-play” and have self-control, please comment. I really need help!

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