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‘Bet ‘ya can’t make me!’ – The Impact Of External Control (Part I)


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Thinking back to my childhood years, I recall a “dare” expression one child would bark to another: “Make me; bet’ya can’t make me!” I didn’t think much about the term back then, other than my associating it with bullying. Today, though, I view it on a more profound level, especially in regard to the parent populace. As I observe parents interacting with their children, I wonder how many of them, in fact, believe there is validity to this statement. After all, when parents attempt to influence their adolescent’s behaviors with the use of control, are they not sometimes indirectly responding to a superficial dare?

Dr. William Glasser, 20th-century psychologist, in his book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, discusses the use of external control as a way to get someone to do something, and the destructive element inherent in using that approach. Some of the behaviors he categorizes as external control are: manipulate, punish, criticize, blame, nag, badger, and even reward. Glasser also points to two beliefs that are at the foundation of external control psychology. One belief is: “I can make other people do what I want them to do even if they do not want to do it. And other people can control how I think, act and feel.” Another belief is: “It is my right; it is even my moral obligation to ridicule, threaten or punish those who don’t do what I tell them to do or even reward them if it will get them to do what I want because it is in their best interest to do what they are told.”

In contrast to using external control, Glasser offers an alternative way to achieve cooperation and compliance from others. As an empowering means of fostering a healthy relationship, he suggests employing Choice Theory. The Choice Theory approach is based on an internal system of values, upgrading one’s character traits (i.e., care, listen, understand, support, negotiate, love, encourage), and allowing natural consequences to do the policing. Glasser further warns that when people are controlled too long, it is often at the risk of compromising the integrity of the relationship, or worse yet, losing it.

The concept of choice is not new to our culture. As a matter of fact, we are introduced to the idea at the outset of our history – the history of man, that is.

As soon as man is given entry into his new abode, Gan Eden, the next couple of psukim (verses) clearly describe the parameters of his living arrangement. Adam is given one rule by which he must live (not to eat of the Tree — Eitz Hada’as), along with the consequence he will incur should he disobey G-d’s rule (Bereishis 2:15-17). Thus, choice is introduced to man.

Further on in the psukim, a dialogue takes place between G-d, and Adam and Chava (Bereishis 3:9-13) following their disobeying G-d’s command. The theme underlying G-d’s questioning is, as pointed out by Rashi, teshuvah (repentance). G-d patiently attempts to draw out of them responsibility for their actions. However, instead of owning up to their wrongdoing, Odom and Chava’s responses, respectively, focus on blame and ingratitude (as noted by Rashi).

As the blame game continues, G-d does not reprove them for employing that tactic. Neither does He criticize or lecture them at any point during the dialogue. And ironically, the communication concludes with, what appears to be, a matter-of-fact language. G-d clarifies to them the consequences they can expect in their future. In its simplistic form (p’shat), it appears the Torah is accentuating a “choice” approach rather than an external control system.

The late mashgiach of the Ponevich Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, presented his thoughts on the impact of external control on behavioral changes. He states a fundamental principle of Chinuch: that a person’s motivations will follow his actions only when the person identifies with the ideals associated with those actions. He further relates that Rav Yisroel Salanter made this same point. Citing evidence from the Cossacks, Rav Yisroel brings our attention to their history.

As the elite troops of Europe, the Cossacks were drafted at a young age and served for 30 years before retiring on a government pension. During their many years of army service these troops were highly disciplined, energetic and productive. However, after retiring, the soldiers spent the rest of their lives in a drunken stupor. What happened to the good habits they practiced for 30 years?! Rav Yisroel answers, “Since they were ‘forced’ to join the army and never identified with those values, their external behaviors did not have the power to influence their internal values.” *

Rav Yisroel’s story reminds me of a self-reflective thought shared with me by one of my clients at an early point in our coaching work.

As a mother of a large family ranging in age from 3 to14, Rikki (name changed) was one of those parents whose parenting approach encompassed external control. And that’s why she came to coaching; she wanted to change her direction. We worked on tools she had never used prior to that point, such as learning how to demonstrate “respect” to her children and how to refine her “listening” skills. As she diligently applied these tools, she also anticipated she would get immediate cooperation. To her dismay, things did not work out as quickly as she had expected. When her children would be uncooperative, they would act up rather easily. It didn’t take long for her buttons to be pushed and for her to revert automatically to “control mode.” Before she could count to 5, she was already punishing and rewarding, and using other manipulative tactics.

As she put it, “I became frustrated and desperately wanted to let go of the old ways. It occurred to me that before I had a collection of effective tools, I simply did whatever I believed worked (even if it really didn’t work). When one of my children didn’t listen to my warning, I forced the child into submission by yelling and reprimanding the child. And when that didn’t work, being at my wit’s end, my hand swung at the child ever so swiftly and effortlessly. The worst thing is I detested hitting. It made me feel horrible and I’d become angry with myself afterwards.”

“I also tried other techniques. I worked at changing my tone and speech to a quieter and calmer way of communicating. And when my even-tone didn’t yield cooperation, I moved toward positive reinforcement. I offered rewards which, after accrued, were exchanged for more rewards. At the time, I truly believed this was the only way my children would listen!”

“And then it hit me! With some introspection, honesty and self-reflection on my part, I recognized that I still hadn’t achieved a lasting effect. I was only able to attain control of my children’s behaviors “for the moment.” But I wasn’t giving them any life skills. I wasn’t teaching them a technique that would enable them to make healthy choices in their future. And unfortunately, I wasn’t giving them an opportunity to live a healthier life than I had lived.”

Regrettably, Rikki was teaching her children to model the approach with which she was parented – the method she found so abhorrent – the use of control. How habitual we human beings act and how sorrowful it is for our children when we lack awareness and education!

In Part II, we will continue differentiating between the empowering approach of choice and the use of external control.

* My thanks to Dr. BenZion Sorotzkin for making this piece of information available.

Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at lovetoughcoach@aol.com.

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