Dichotomy of control

The Trichotomy of Control

Parents do not control their children, and that in fact we only have, at most, partial influence over our children’s actions at any given moment. (Your child’s behavior is also determined by biological needs, chance, external situations, and other factors beyond your control.) This idea is based on the dichotomy of control, which means knowing what you can and cannot control in life. However, recognizing that the dichotomy of control applies even to your children does not in any way mean that you should sit back and do nothing to shape their actions. Stoicism is actually a very proactive philosophy that advocates doing what you can to improve the people and things around you, even though you recognize that you cannot completely control them. So where does this leave us with raising children? How does this help us with both our long-term parenting goals and getting through the daily grind?

To answer these questions, let us turn to the ideas of William Irvine in his Guide to the Good Life, in which he suggests that we update Epictetus’ dichotomy of control to a trichotomy of control. In addition to the simple binary categories “things over which we have complete control” and “things over which we have no control at all,” we can add “things over which we have some but not complete control.” To illustrate this category, Irvine uses the example of playing tennis: you can control how hard you have practiced for the match, what you eat the day before, how focused you are, etc., but you cannot control whether you actually win the match. There will always be factors beyond your control, such as how good your opponent is or your genetic level of talent. So you should focus on doing your best at the match, not on winning. This is an example of “internalizing your goals,” which allows you to not be upset when you inevitably do not always get what you want.

Irvine’s suggestion of a trichotomy of control is similar to another idea presented by the ancient Stoics called “acting with the reserve clause.” You should undertake whatever actions you think are good and appropriate, but you should do so knowing that you might be thwarted from reaching your goals. When you set off on a journey, you say, “I will reach my destination if nothing prevents me.” Many traditional cultures have expressed this same idea with the phrase “God willing,” like when Muslims say “Inshallah” (God willing) in discussing any undertaking, or when my grandparents used to say, “God willing and the creeks don’t rise!”

I think both the trichotomy of control and the reserve clause are extremely useful psychological tools to adopt in Stoic parenting. We’ve already established that you don’t have complete control over your kids, but you do have the task of raising them and living with them every day. So if you can’t force your children to do things, how do you get them to, well, do things? How do you get them to treat each other respectfully, help set the table for dinner, and be happy with what they have? I started thinking about this issue very carefully when I was confronted with the following scenario:

Me: We don’t have anything in the fridge for dinner. We need to go to the grocery store. James, come get your shoes on and get in the car.

James: No. [crosses arms and sits down on the couch]

Hmmm. Ok, so I don’t control James, but if we don’t go to the grocery store, we won’t have any food for dinner. Turning to the trichotomy of control, I think about what I can control in this situation. I do control my own response, and I have a few different options. Let’s consider every option I have, even the ones that are undesirable or unrealistic:

  • Try to physically force James to do what I want. (This is undesirable, and I know I’m not going to try it.)
  • Walk away and have canned food for dinner that night. (This is unrealistic and impractical. I’m not going to do this.)
  • Pretend I’m going to leave him at home if he doesn’t come with me. (This worked approximately one time, and then he figured out that I wouldn’t really leave him.)

So if I’m not willing to choose any of those options, I have different methods by which I can try to influence James. In all of these cases, the desired outcome is having James put his shoes on. I can

  • Punish him (time out, losing a toy, not watching tv)
  • Offer a reward (jumping on the trampoline, watching his favorite tv show)
  • Coax and cajole (come on, you’re such a big kid! You’re so good at getting your shoes on by yourself!)
  • Trick him (let’s play a game! can you get your shoes on faster than I can?)
  • Ignore him (and hope he changes his mind)
  • Offer a rational explanation for why we absolutely must go to the store (otherwise we won’t have anything to eat!)
  • Appeal to his better nature (by explaining that good little boys help their mamas and follow directions)

I think there are two important reasons for stepping back to look at the situation as objectively as possible. First, it helps you stay calm and solve the problem to the best of your ability. Second, it helps you fully realize that no matter what you do, no matter which option you pick, you still do not control the results.

So first of all, I can see that I actually have many different ways to handle the situation, and I can choose the one(s) that I think are best suited to the moment. It’s not my goal to tell anyone else how to discipline their child; I think there are many reasonable approaches, and different options will be best for different people and different situations. I’m sure there are more options that I did not list that other people would use. (In case you are interested, I listed them in reverse order of how likely I am to use them. I would probably start with the last one and work my way back up the list if I needed to.) This is where practical wisdom comes in: based on your experience and knowledge with your child, and your long-term and short-term goals, you pick the action you think will have the best results. (I know, that’s easier said than done.) And if one set of tactics does not work, then the next time you can try something different, or take measures to avoid getting into the undesirable situation in the first place.

Then after you rely on your practical wisdom to resolve the problem to the best of your ability, you remember the trichotomy of control and your mantra, “Some things are up to me and some things are not.” You only control your action, not the outcome of your actions. Notice that in all of the options listed above, I still do not control how James responds. That’s right: no matter which option I pick, I still do not control the outcome. Just as a thought experiment, let’s suppose that there were some theoretical correct response to the situation. Even if I knew this correct response and implemented it perfectly, I still do not control the outcome. All I can do is try my best and use the reserve clause (fate permitting) to accept the actual result.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can or should be this detached and deliberate as you make all your parenting decisions. Obviously, you have to address most problems immediately and you do not have time to stop and make a list of all your options. But you can learn to apply the trichotomy of control to stay calm and make decisions to the best of your ability. Stoic practice is all about using reason in everyday situations, so we do need to be aware of what we are doing and make sure it aligns with our larger goals as a person and parent. The more you practice applying the reserve clause to your actions, the more second nature it becomes.

Although giving up control of the situation may sound strange and uncomfortable, I have found that it is a huge relief. For a long time I felt that it was my fault if my children behaved in a frustrating or unloveable way. I thought if they were obstinate or difficult, it must be because I was doing something wrong as a parent–I just didn’t know what it was I was doing wrong. And if I was the one causing the problem, then I must be responsible for fixing it. I must be able to take some action that would force them to change their behavior–I just didn’t know what it was. I constantly felt like everything was my fault, and that I was a terrible parent if my children did things that I didn’t like.

Learning about and internalizing the dichotomy (or trichotomy) of control has made a world of difference in the way I approach parenting. Yes, of course I can influence my children, and I will be talking more about how I try to influence their behavior and their character development. But knowing that I cannot control them has taught me not to feel guilty when they make a mistake. If I know I’ve done my best to teach James not to snatch, it doesn’t make me a failure as a parent the next time he snatches a toy. After all, if children were born perfect, they wouldn’t need parents to care for and guide them. Our job is to provide the education and loving guidance that we can, to the best of our abilities. After we take appropriate action, we don’t have any guarantee that it will have the desired result, but we can hope for the best–God willing and the creeks don’t rise. 

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