Sunday, January 23, 2011

Do Kids Have Too Much Freedom?

I was browsing through an article in Family Circle by Elizabeth Foy Larsen. The subject was bad ethical decisions among youth. As I was reading, I came across this statement listed as one of the primary reasons kids go astray: "They have too much freedom."

Such a phrase likely slips right through the psychology of most parents without raising any red flags or questions. Many are probably wondering what Liz had to say next, eagerly awaiting instructions on what liberties should be revoked from our offspring. The tendency amongst parents when things don't go as planned is to want to find ways to rule their children’s' lives through force. And why not? After all, it seems to work just fine throughout the early years.

Here's our issue with such a statement: Since when did freedom become a bad thing? Where else on the planet would someone get away with using "too much" as a qualifying word describing freedom? I'm reminded also of a quote by Dr. James Hollis, who writes: "Love asks independence of both parties, freedom, not control, not guilt, not coercion, not manipulation." Good parenting, too, requires NOT that children be kept as virtual slaves lest they act inappropriately, but that they be given the freedom to explore, and that we use those magical years of childhood establishing a desire to act ethically towards others. While many parents get away with such principles and even offer one another encouragement to the idea that children are slaves whose lives must be micromanaged, it is these ideals more than anything which cause many of our current problems.

If an adolescent hasn't learned how to act ethically by the time they're into their teenage years, when do you expect them to learn it? And is ethical behavior really something you can instill through sheer parental force? Unlikely. Responsibility is not something that can be micromanaged.

Freedom and responsibility depend on each other, and the idea that responsibility can be imposed is really making an oxymoron of the word. Responsibility can only be present when one is free to act in a variety of competing ways, yet still chooses the kindest and most ethical choice at the time. Restricting freedom does not create responsibility. All it does is avoid the issue.

The problem is not freedom, the problem is not technology, the problem is not all of those other things adults like to pinpoint as the root cause of the problem whenever citing testimonials about how ill-behaved youth these days are. The problem is that parents spend too much time treating their children as property to be commanded around, and too little time when young helping them develop the empathy and compassion to want to act properly, when given the freedom to do so.

Acknowledging ones children as free and independent human beings is the first step towards fixing this problem. In fact, the problems of adolescence are most commonly brought about because the type of dictatorship parenting style so many families rely on in early life starts to slip away. Because parents have spent the bulk of their time dictating restrictions and demands (often with little explanation or guidance) rather than developing responsibility through freedom and support, there's nothing for the teen to fall back on. When "do it because I told you so" starts to fail, and parents haven’t spent enough time allowing their children to make choices while talking to them like adults about WHY they should do this or that, this is when the biggest problems tend to emerge. When parents are inclined to see children as free and in dependent people with their own wishes, dreams, and desires, and when they take this perspective from a young age, they'll tend to spend a lot more time teaching and less time preaching. Just as importantly, they'll be less concerned with what children do, and more concerned with they do it and how.

Parents mistakenly assume they have 18 years to train their children. The reality is you have more like 12. It's not as though parents lose all influence during the teen years, they can still matter a great deal and still play a prominent role in the lives of their children. It's just that when a child hits adolescence, it is peers who will hold their attention and captivate their lives, and if the first twelve years haven’t been used building a strong foundation of empathy, ethics, and responsibility, adolescence is not the proper time nor place to try and develop these traits through force. Just as you need to board up windows before the hurricane arrives, rather than trying to haul around sheets of lumber in 150 M.P.H. winds, children need constant practice and instruction in empathy and responsibility when young to counter the onslaught of negative influence they'll withstand from peers during adolescence.

If your children are 7, 8, or 9-years-old, now is the time to be talking with them about some of these issues they might face later on. It is now you should be having discussions about how horribly words can hurt, and how important it is to be kind towards everyone, regardless of the circumstance. Now is the time you should model these traits yourself. Now is the time you should bring up stories about how a mean-spirited prank might cause another person so much hurt that they kill themselves. If it's not seeded early, it won't have enough staying power later on.

Most of all, remember that the measure of good parenting is not determined by how much stuff you can take away, how many freedoms you can restrict, or how well you impede your child's transition to adulthood. Unfortunately, this is precisely the premise behind a lot of the parenting advice out there today. Parents have succeeded when they can give a child full use of the computer or other technology, and be confident that the child won't use it to bully or harass others. Not because they're forced to, but because their conscience wouldn't allow it. Parents have succeeded when we can support our teens' modes of expression, even if they're not aligned with our own, knowing that it is from their heart and for the right reasons, and that any path they choose will be inclusive and considerate towards others. True success as parents can only be realized when we allow our children true freedom to do what they want to do and be who they want to be, while trusting the foundations are in place to guide them through whatever course they choose responsibly. They are bound to make mistakes along the way and may choose a path different than what we might have dictated for them, but freedom is a necessary part of responsibility. The core principles we want our children to have thrive on freedom, they aren't impeded by it. This requires parenting by means of a lot more explanations, a lot more freedom alongside guidance in empathy development, and a lot less sheer force, but the payoffs are well worth it. When you do this, children will make ethical and responsible choices all their own. Not because they're commanded to, but because it's the right thing to do and they want to.

1. James Hollis, 'Why Good People Do Bad Things,' New York: Penguin Publishing, 2007, p. 95. This book can be purchased through our Child Safety Store, with a portion of the purchase price going towards various children's causes.

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