Control vs Influence: A coach-approach to raising your kids

A Blog Post by Bill Copper

I’ll never forget that day. It was during the Thanksgiving season and my oldest son was home from college for the long weekend. I was fairly new to coaching at the time and my relationship with Chuck could be characterized this way: I would tell him what he should do….he wouldn’t do it….and then we would argue about it….about the consequences, about his ignoring his dad’s impressive wisdom…and we would find ourselves at odds over and over again.

On this particular afternoon, Chuck was home from school and telling me about his latest (mis)adventures as part of a fraternity. He was lamenting the fact that it cost more than he had been told, required more time, and made demands that he was finding onerous. I reminded him of conversations we’d had during which I had warned him of these very things. And then Chuck said something that I guess I knew instinctively, but hadn’t ever heard out loud: He said (and I quote), “Well, Dad…just because you tell me something doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to you.”

Yep…he said it just like that. And while I knew this was true, and probably SHOULD be true, it was a profound moment to actually face this truth head on.

Later that week in a conversation with my coach, I was sharing these words from my son and she said something even more profound. She asked a question that has forever changed the way I have tried to parent – not only with Chuck, but with my two other sons as well. My coach asked “What do you see as the difference between control and influence?” It was one of those awesome coaching questions that took me a full minute to take in. I’m sure she must’ve wondered if the phone connection had been lost, but she remained silent while I wrestled with that question. And I’ve been wrestling with it ever since.

What that question caused me to realize is that there are situations over which I do have some control, and others in which I have (at best) influence. And understanding which of those situations I am in helps me to set my own expectations for how things will work out.

When I assume I have some control, my expectations are that I’ll have some say in the outcome. And when I don’t have that say, it can lead to frustration and disappointment. BUT, when I assume I merely have influence, my expectations for outcomes are completely different. As I’ve grown in my coaching (and, hopefully in my parenting), I realized that outcomes are not my responsibility. I’ve become pretty good at helping my clients get where they want to go, in the way they want to get there, without having any attachment to the outcome. And that’s because I KNOW I don’t have control in that relationship.

The new learning for me is that as my boys grow up, my role and responsibility has shifted from control to influence.

When I thought I had control over the decisions and actions of my college-aged kids, it led to frustration and disappointment when things didn’t go the way I thought they should. As I’ve realized that AT BEST I have influence, I’ve seen my relationship with all three boys transform into one of encouragement and support. I certainly share insights when asked (which I’m finding is much more frequent), but I don’t have any expectations that they will do things the way I would, or think they “should”. And can tell you they have all three wowed me with how much they’ve accomplished.

In the last two weeks, both of my older boys have purchased their first homes and managed all of that process. My youngest son has just returned from a semester in Spain where he found an apartment, managed life in a foreign country, learned the language, and explored a whole new world. And my only role in any of these accomplishments was to offer support and encouragement, provide a few insights along the way, and watch them take steps toward becoming the men God intends – much further and faster than if I’d tried to be in control.

I think back often on that Thanksgiving conversation with Chuck, and the resulting conversation with my coach about the distinction between control and influence. My one regret is not learning these lessons earlier in my (and their) journey as a dad. My challenge to you is to embrace this principle with your kids and others with whom you have some influence, and sit back and watch them soar!