When Does Parenting Cross the Line From Encouraging to Controlling?

The plan was to jog the 5K with my daughter’s Girls on the Run teammates. Instead, Ava and I sat in our car for ninety minutes inching the final two miles to the event parking lot and missing our race start time by 45 minutes.

By the time we arrived at her team’s base camp, her friends had crossed the finish line, beaming at each other and glowing with endorphins and pride. Ava was devastated. I felt ashamed. Hadn’t these people hit the same butt-numbing traffic we did? Apparently, they’re better parents. Or at least better drivers.

At that moment, my desire to run the race disappeared, replaced by a voracious urge for large quantities of junk food. But was that the message I wanted to send my daughter – Life hands you lemons, binge at the nearest Dunkin Donuts?

Instead, my tenacious side won out. I didn’t drive two hours to give up. We were running that god damn race. And we would have fun running it, even if it killed us.

Ava and I lined up hand in hand at the starting line. Earlier that morning, I promised Ava we could walk as much of the race as she wanted. She felt scared. I did too. While Ava had spent two months jogging with her teammates to prepare for the race, I had run exactly twice – once for training purposes, once to buy a corn muffin as big as my head from the bakery down the street.

Walking the race originally sounded like a brilliant plan. But as we stood at the starting line with the many others who had arrived late, adrenaline ignited my competitive streak.

“Can we walk now?” Ava said after we’d run approximately 25 feet.

“No way, kiddo,” I said. “We’re running. Let’s go!”

I felt strong and was eager to burn maximum calories before our long trek home.

“Mom, you’re breaking your promise. I can’t trust you if you break promises.”

Her words sounded vaguely familiar, but I was too full of energy bars to back down. “Ava, you worked hard for this moment. Don’t let your disappointment ruin it for you. Let’s switch off jogging and walking until we finish.”

Block by block, I pushed Ava to keep up with my plan. She jogged, walked and complained simultaneously for three miles.  When the finish line came into view, she begged me again to walk.

“You can walk if you want, but I’m running. I’ll race you!” I said, registering the anger in Ava’s eyes.

While I told myself I pushed for her benefit, I’m not sure that’s true. My motives weren’t pure, but when we ran across the finish line, Ava’s face radiated pride and joy. I saw a mirror for myself, and I liked what I saw. Maybe a little pushing is a good thing. Maybe I’ll call it leadership. I may be justifying my behavior, but I’m grateful we ran half the race, even if Ava spent that half hating me.

Worth pissing her off? Check with me in 20 years.

Worth pissing her off? Check with me in 20 years.

69 thoughts on “When Does Parenting Cross the Line From Encouraging to Controlling?

  1. Not sure why, but this made me cry. There is nothing more annoying than being stuck in traffic before a race. I love that you guys pressed on. Together. LOVE LOVE LOVE It. I remember this race from last year….love the commitment from both of you.

  2. I think you did exactly the right thing. My dad was a major runner when I was growing up, and he used to push me in exactly this way all the time. I hated him a little for it then, but I’m a runner now, and I owe a huge part of my relationship to exercise in general and running specifically to those Sunday 5K races. It’s a big and important part of my life as an adult, and I pretty much owe it to my dad and those little pushes. I may have complained all along the way, but I was running while I did.

    • I sure hope Ava has the same experience you did. I love that your dad encouraged you in something that is such a big part of your life as an adult. My parents never pushed me in anything athletic so it’s new to me to do so. Scary and I hope she remembers it as a push of love! 😉

  3. I feel like I have this internal dilemma quite often with my daughter…when to push and when to back off. I think in this case, you absolutely did the right thing by pushing. Sometimes I wonder what I could have achieved if my mom had pushed me more. It’s a fine line.

      • I totally agree! I would pay thousands of dollars for an app like that – my oldest is 20 now, and the lines are even harder to find at that age 😦

        Great post – I would have done the same – often our fear of not being able to do something can stop us in our tracks – you coached your daughter through this fear – it was uncomfortable for her – but she did it, knowing you believed in her. I think this is the greatest gift we can give our children. She will remember and be thankful for it … great job momma!

  4. I was having a similar argument in my head this week! Mine was around my kids who like having a boat but don’t really want to tube or ski or do the stuff that IMHO makes boating fun. I was wondering what is the right amount of “get your ass out there & have done damn fun” (my dad’s voice works well here) and “honey I know it’s scary but if you give it a chance I’m pretty sure you’ll have fun” (truth be told there isn’t really a voice who would say that in our house…not even the girls to their dolls). Give them power or not raise a bunch of pansies…i’m sure there’s a happy medium somewhere. I’m gonna keep searching for it. I think you were close to the sweet spot on the 5K–some push, some give, some accomplishment. Also…I heard that race was a nightmare to get to. Other friends scheduled a do-over in their town. 😦

    • “Not even the girls to their dolls!” Love it! My kids have two voices for their dolls – “oh honey, it’s okay.” and “get yer ass moving!” Wonder where they learned those?! I would go nuts if my kids didn’t try the boating fun stuff. It’s a good thing my husband takes the long-term view on most things!
      The race was a nightmare! GOTR took full responsibility and offered a bunch of do-over options so that helped, but what a mess! xo

  5. I recently ran a 5K with my son. And by run, I mean my boy ditched me and ran. I intermittently ran and walked but I finished — on 900th place. It was humiliating, but I’m glad I finished. I’m guessing by your daughter’s smile she’s glad you pushed her. This time. 😉

  6. i’m torn, just like you. i don’t like breaking promises, but i don’t like wimping out either. i probably would have done the exact same thing, but, also for my own reasons – that i wanted to move faster, and i thought my kid could do it. i don’t know the answer here. case by case… boo traffic!

  7. I hate running and I would have been pissed off at you too – but I still think you did the right thing. Sometimes the lesson is in the perseverance, not in the keeping a promise to quit when things get hard.

  8. Woohoo! Sounds like you did a great job at encouraging her to push herself. Racing is so mentally tough for even the most competitive racers, and sometimes you just don’t have it in you! It’s always good to have a buddy pushing you forward. Great job! If it’s consolation to you, I joined cross country my freshman year of high school… Hated it… But my mom wouldn’t let me quit the team! I finished the season, and ended up joining the team again the next three years on my own free will, and still love running today… And I still love my mom today too. 😉

  9. Oh man, there aren’t any “right” things to do. I think you handled it as well as you could have. Because … there’s a point at which kids (and adults) DO want to give up and fail without starting. You were essentially pushing her beyond that moment and showing her what she could do.

  10. I love that you encouraged Ava to run, even though you were late to the start. To me, that’s saying we’re still going to go forward with this, even though there were some unplanned obstacles. Maybe you pushed her pace on the course, maybe not? By that smile, I think you guys ran it exactly the way you were supposed to.

  11. So I kind of feel like you’re in my head. I constantly feel this tug between encouraging and controlling. It’s definitely a fine line and sometimes I worry that I push too hard. My older son tends to stop doing things as soon as he encounters and obstacle or it feels difficult. I encourage/push him because I want him to see that he is capable of doing incredible things and I don’t want him to sell himself short. Those times that he pushes through, the smile on his face is priceless. But those times that is backfires in my face? Not pretty. I totally wouldn’t have done the same thing as you.

  12. I think you were more encouraging than pushing. I wouldn’t have done anything different myself. I would have been beyond frustrated about the traffic though!!!

    • That traffic was a killer. Lots of kids didn’t even get to run the race because they arrived too late. Can you imagine driving two+ hours in traffic and being told the race was cancelled? Ugh! The Girls on the Run group took responsibility for the poor traffic planning and rescheduled races for those who didn’t get to run.

  13. That is one big smile. So, unless she is a great actress, you did something right or didn’t mess things up too badly. Ha ha.
    I find her line to you: “Mom, you’re breaking your promise. I can’t trust you if you break promises.” very interesting. It sounds like a parent talking to a child.

  14. She’s a beautiful kid…Its so hard to know when to stop the push…I still do it and mine is 24…I guess I could use a push now and then as well so maybe it never stops?

  15. Good for you, and for Ava!
    As someone whose mother was very hands-off, I’m finding that as my son ages I don’t have the slightest clue what I’m doing. I don’t know how to push, or when, or how hard. This has been on my mind, your timing with this post was perfect for me 🙂

  16. I think you did the right thing and you did a great job! You taught a very important lesson to your daughter and that’s to always finish what she started and never to quit no matter how hard it gets. She looks so happy in the picture. This experience will definitely be a treasured memory. 🙂

  17. I struggle with this too as my 8-year-old son is a homebody and has incredible performance anxiety when he’s in unfamiliar situations. But I also know that once he’s broken the ice, he participates fully and always has fun. We had that argument this morning, “I’m too tiiiiired to go to swim team!” “But you’re never tired once you get there and you always have fun!” “”No, I don’t!” “Then why are you always smiling and happy when I see you at the pool and why did you ask me if you could do swim team again next year?” “I don’t know. I’m just tooooo tiiiiiiiired!”

    We went to the pool. He swam. He was happy. Just like I knew he would be.

    I don’t feel guilty nudging him when he’s holding back due to laziness. I also know when to pull back and let him find his way — he’s on the swim team, but doesn’t want to do any meets (yet). I’m OK with that.

    • This is great – my daughter and your son are similar. She’ll say “no” first then have so much fun doing whatever she was busy saying no to once she shows up! She gets that from me cause I’m similar and it drives my husband nuts. 😉 I want her to learn that showing up is more than half the battle, but I guess I can’t control what lessons resonate with her. I’ll probably keep trying so please remind me when to back off! Thank you!

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  19. That gorgeous photo at the end makes me think you did the right thing. She looks so proud! I still find myself pushing my kids, and they’re older, old enough to decide for themselves. I want them to at least be open to trying things.

  20. Love it! Sometimes I think our kids need a little push to get them moving forward. Consider this a life lesson – teaching her to push herself. I’d have done the same thing and then felt bad after I did it 🙂

  21. I think this is really challenging. We struggled with this same kind of thing this summer when my oldest son did swim team. Well. Sort of did swim team. We had the big battle of when to push or encourage and when to let go. This was good inspiration for the encouragement part.

  22. Go!!! I ran one 5K for charity and it took me 45 minutes. The elderly in their windsuits were race-walking past me. My kids ran over the finish line, and I cried. I am so proud of you and Ava.

  23. It’s always such a fine line, isn’t it? Ugh. Ava will take the lesson of perseverance and endurance and triumph more than anything else that happened that day. And it shows in her beautiful and joyful face!!!

  24. The lesson that things can go differently than planned and still turn out well won’t be lost on her. She’ll remember that day in a different way than she would have had you been on time and she’d crossed the finish line with her friends.

  25. You sound like a pretty good mom to me. I think that having to start the race late is what’s going to make this event something your daughter will remember doing with you forever. Great job on the not giving up! 🙂

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  27. First, donuts make almost any problem better. Second, there’s nothing wrong with controlling you children, they’re children after all. My kids would often try tell me that we lived in a free country and they could do as they pleased. I corrected them. I told them that I lived in a free country by they lived in the home an evil dictator.

  28. I love this post. I will be honest with you…I wish my mother had pushed me more. I feel like she often gave me the easy way out, and even today I tend to take it. My hubby ran the 5K with our older daughter for GOTR this spring, and he said that there were several times she wanted to walk but he kind of pushed her on…and like your sweet girl she was beaming when she crossed the finish line!-Ashley

  29. My daughter ran her first 5k at the age of 8, and my husband and I had to do the same thing (in terms of pushing her). I think it teaches them the very valuable lesson of not giving up the moment things get tough. And the pride in your daughter’s eyes (and my daughter’s as well) proves it!

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