Is Freedom Something I Give to My Child?
Three Questions to Ask Regarding Your Child's Freedom
1. Is freedom something I give to my child? In my practice I get the privilege of working with kids of all ages. The topic of how much freedom to give a child comes up with parents that have little toddlers all the way through adolescents. I even work with parents frustrated with their adult children still living in the home.
In some cases, the topic of freedom and rules creates deep resentment between the child and his parents. It can turn into a really toxic power struggle. The parent will give the child some freedom in an area (particularly screens and video games) and the child will somehow abuse their freedom in the parent’s eyes and then freedom is taken away.
This starts a seemingly never-ending journey where the child acts “good” to earn the freedom back and then he loses his “privileges” or freedom when he inevitably messes up again. Some teenagers I have counseled even see their parents as prison wardens.
This back-and-forth dance can wear down and destroy the positive relationship and attachment a child has with his parents. I wanted to use this blog to ask this question:
Is freedom something I give to my child or is it something he always had?
I think it is a very important distinction. How I answer this question will dictate how I handle discipline in my home.
2. How can kids take responsibility for their actions if they aren’t allowed to freely choose their actions? When I ask the teenagers I am working with, “Who gives you freedom?”, they will always say, "My parents." They deeply believe that their parents have the ultimate power in their lives to give and take away their freedom. They believe in order to get more freedom they need to either fight and demand it or comply and beg for it.
Some teenagers find it difficult to see any other possibilities because this is the reality and worldview they have been presented. They are completely stunned when I follow up and ask them,
“What if you were born with all the freedom you are ever going to have, and your parents' job is to provide healthy boundaries for you to express your freedom?”
At first, most of them see this as completely implausible until we delve into it further. These kids think they do the chores at home because if they don’t they will get in trouble. They will tell me they don’t act out in larger and more aggressive ways because they are afraid of what their parents will do to them.
Some even believe the only reason they go to school is because if they don’t, their parents will get arrested and thrown in jail. A lot of these teenagers have grown up feeling that most, if not all, of their choices are not theirs to make.
Many of them even struggle making their own choices because they don’t quite know how to do that. They see their daily existence as one of two choices: either do what the adults in my life tell me to do or don’t do what they tell me to do and then suffer the consequences.
My goal in these conversations is to help raise the child’s awareness and understanding that everything they do on a day-to-day basis is a choice they are making. The more they believe that choices and decisions are only made by people in authority over them they will approach conflict and life as powerless and helpless victims.
I want them to see that when they do cooperate with their parents it is their choice and when they don’t cooperate with them it is also their choice. I want them to see that there are more than just two choices in every situation.
When children begin to understand they are free, it empowers them to take responsibility for their actions. They can begin seeing implications of their choices and grasp the concept that what they do with their freedom matters. In any given moment, they can choose to bring more light into the world or more darkness. They can decide to be helpful or hurtful.
3. How do I model freedom to my children? My wife and I parent from the belief that freedom is not something we give to our children. They are free from the moment they enter in this world. They are free to think and feel what they want to think and feel.
We see freedom as a gift. We see our time with them as they are growing up as an opportunity to guide them in how to manage this precious gift. This involves giving them boundaries to explore their freedom.
These boundaries are designed to keep them safe but also to give them room to fail and succeed. We believe kids need to experience both, within the safe and healthy boundaries that parents have provided. As they get older, those boundaries are expanded so they can expand in their understanding of how to express their freedom in a variety of circumstances.
We are also really intentional about our language in the house. We do our best to move away from language such as “have to” or “need to”. We want to model to our kids that in almost every situation how to pivot from “have to” to “want to”, or from “need to” to “get to”. This may look like semantics but it is more than that. It is moving away from one worldview and towards another one.
We don’t desire for our kids to do school work because they have to, we would like them to do the school work because they want to. We hope to invite them into seeing chores as a “get to” rather than a “need to”.
We want them to see us going to work with a mindset filled with gratitude that we get to do jobs we find meaningful and challenging. This is just one simple way we have found to remind us of our freedom and their freedom.
I remember one day when I got in the car and my then 6-yr-old son asked me where I was going, and I told him I have to go to Lowes to get some parts for the broken edger. He quickly said to me, “You don’t have to go to Lowes. You want to go to Lowes because you want the edger to be fixed.”
It really did help me shift my perspective and made it easier for me to access joy and gratitude in that moment.