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In Charge, But Not in Control

February 24, 2012

I don’t have any wisdom to share today. I just sat down to think out loud about the difference between being “in charge” and being controlling.

Lisa Quals at One Thankful Mom started me thinking about this last week with her excellent post, Who is in Charge?

Last weekend Hope was anxious and perseverating about an impending visit to our old neighborhood. As I listened to her fears (that Faith’s friends might “spy” on Hope and her friends –all the neighborhood kids pretended to be secret agents last summer), for lack of anything else coming to mind, I tried, “Hope, Faith is not in charge. Daddy is in charge.”

No profound explanation. In fact I wasn’t even sure what I meant. Really: with my husband likely visiting with our old neighbors, I couldn’t be sure he would be aware if the kids were playing “spy” through the neighborhood back yards, much less be on the spot to intervene if called upon.

But the phrase turned off Hope’s perseveration almost like flipping a light switch. She stopped balking, got in the van, and started enthusing about the friends she hoped would be home when they arrived.

I tried it again a few nights later when I could hear Hope, downstairs, getting wound up about a slight she felt certain she was about to receive from her oldest sister.  Now I’d love to be able to tell you that my neuro-typical kids are saints who don’t bait or rise to baiting. But that isn’t true. In fact, it is one of the Big Things we’re working on as a family: how to recognize and stop when we are baiting or being baited.

So I walked to the top of the stairs and tossed it out again. “Hope: it’s okay. Faith is not in charge. Daddy is in charge.” (Daddy was downstairs.) I wasn’t there to see how Hope reacted, but heard her switch mental/verbal gears to something else.


This morning we were still in bed, awake, but not quite ready to get up, when Hope came in and began whining at my husband’s elbow. The whining is intentional because Joy sleeps in our room. When whining goes on long enough, Joy wakes up, too.

“Hope,” I said, “Daddy is in charge of when he gets up.” It was a shot in the dark, literally. But Hope stopped whining. So I started madly praying that my husband would remember the old Nurtured Heart thing about reacting positively in the moment the child pauses to take a breath: that he would choose to get up –to demonstrate that he was in charge –before she started whining again.

He did. But obviously he has more steel in his spine than I do, because he waited two whole minutes. Yes: I was watching the clock. And yes, they were very long minutes because I felt sure she’d start whining again any second and he’d lose the chance to make his point.  [You say you think I have control issues? 🙂 ]

My first thought was to take a moment alone with my husband to point out (in case he hadn’t noticed, right?) how powerful for Hope is the idea that he is in charge. In fact, my husband could relieve me of intervening by saying, “It’s okay Hope. I am in charge.”

But upon longer reflection,  I didn’t do it. I think that part of the power is in Hope’s hearing me say this. Because when the words come out of my mouth, they carry a double ring of truth. Not only is it factually true that daddy is in charge (by virtue of being a parent). But also, mommy is absolutely confident that daddy is in charge.

You see: since Hope began dissociating and raging a year ago, I think we’ve lost ground on the fundamentals of who is in charge in our family. When she goes to that dark place, she’s not in charge and we’re not in charge; it feels like we are all at the mercy of her primal fear until it passes. And in the interests of staying well-clear of that tar pit, of keeping the peace, my husband and I have probably capitulated more than is healthy for Hope –if measured by the evidence that she’s not rock-solid certain that daddy and mommy are in charge.

How does this work at your house? And if you have any wisdom about how to short-circuit the sibling baiting loop, I’m listening!

Now I’m at the end of this post and see I didn’t end up thinking about what I thought I was thinking about when I sat down to write. But I’m not going to revise my topic sentence because I am thinking about that, too: that Jesus was the only person in history who is both in charge and in control.

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