Parenting for Freedom article series: This is the third in a series of articles that analyzes how freedom-loving people can align their parenting with their political philosophy, and how doing so will allow ideas about personal liberty to carry on to the next generation.
When it comes to goal achievement, most people will tell you that the end does not justify the means. But for some reason, that goes out the window when it comes to how parents treat their kids. In the name of teaching children proper behavior, parents allow themselves all sorts of practices that are unfair, illogical, or downright cruel.
A lot of these practices are ingrained in us from our own childhoods. That was when we were on the receiving end of the parenting. It is easy to accept that these parenting practices are harmless, or even necessary, because we all experienced them and “turned out fine.”
But if we remember our principles as freedom-loving parents, we’re going to have to do some things differently than most of society. If we believe that parents owe their kids and that we should therefore be treating children well in our day-to-day interactions with them, then our treatment has to be realistic, logical, and fair.
In my last article, I talked about using short-term actions to help reach long-term parenting goals. Those goals were raising children who could take care of others as well as themselves, and who desired freedom for themselves and others. Here are six actions parents can take that will help children reach these goals in the future while still treating them with respect in the present.
When you have a little kid, baby-proof a play area or a room for him to spend his time. Make it a place he can explore without a lot of intervention from you. This will grant the child his first taste of freedom. Everything he can touch is something he is allowed to touch. There is no one swooping in to restrict his desires. He is free to play, experiment, and think without interruption.
But the baby will still learn there are limits. He will be unable to leave the space. His own physical aptitude will determine whether he can access everything; he must crawl to the toy to play with it, or learn to stand to look out the window. The environment rather than an authority figure enforces the limits. Isn’t this how we wish our own world was? It would be great if our actions weren’t limited by what someone else decides but only by our own capabilities and the laws of nature.
Like any human being, children deserve not to be aggressed upon by unwanted touch. As your children’s first teacher, respecting their bodies will set the stage for their demanding respect from other people in the future. So ask permission before touching your children, and respect their answer whenever possible. This starts with the youngest of infants and expands as the child gets older.
So don’t march into a room and scoop up a baby as she is playing. Instead, first get her attention and then tell her, “I’m going to pick you up now to change your diaper.” Even if the diaper change is not negotiable, talking her through it will give her a sense of participation rather than feeling something is being done to her.
All children should be able to refuse physical affection and not be forced to kiss or hug someone if they don’t want to, even if it would be the “polite” thing to do. Kids should be able to choose whether they want to eat and not be forced to finish their vegetables or take “one more bite.” Older children should be able to make decisions about what they wear, when to cut their hair (or not), and whether to pierce their ears.
Even when a parent must touch a child without previous permission (the child is running toward danger, for example), a simple acknowledgment afterward can help. “Sorry if I scared you when I grabbed your arm. I saw that the swing was about to hit you so I pulled you out of the way.” Obviously, hitting or spanking a child flies in the face of bodily autonomy and never should be done.
An extension of bodily autonomy is authority over their possessions. This is the basis for a respect of property rights in the future. What parents often mean when they say “share” is, “give away your property.” Really little children don’t even understand the concept of sharing and think that anything they want is “theirs.” Older kids might understand the value of generosity. Still, parents should never compel them to be generous by forcing them to let someone else take or use their property. That’s like adults being taxed for “a good cause.”
When I talk about “property” for children, I mean the toy they are currently using, the food on their plate, or the space they are taking up in a room. Because they are not financially independent, you could argue that kids own nothing, but that attitude sets up a child as a slave or a charity case in the house of the parents rather than someone with rights. Remember that parents owe their kids; in this case, they owe their kids the right to “own” things, if only temporarily.
My kids retain actual ownership of a few special toys, but most items and space in our house are communal and become the property of the person using them. As a parent, your job should be to allow the children to work out their sharing scuffles, only intervening to prevent bodily harm.
When my own children come crying to me that they want a toy another sibling is using, I repeat my oft-used phrase, “I don’t take a toy away from one kid to give to another kid.” This counteracts entitlement; you don’t deserve something from someone else because you want it.
In situations where one child takes a toy from another child, I “sportscast” the incident, stating both sides without judgment. “You had the toy and now Sam has it. You both want it. How can you work this out?” But if they reach a stalemate, I will help enforce property rights by giving the toy back to the party who had it first.
Think of this practice as protecting a child’s freedom of speech. Children are going to face a lot of disappointment in life. Their favorite toy will break, there won’t be time for the playground, they’ll have to sit in their car seat. So when kids feel disappointment, the least a parent can do is allow them to be upset about it.
Freedom-loving parents will let their children feel sadness, anger, and frustration. They will allow them to express those feelings, even if that means screaming, crying, whining, stomping their feet or punching a pillow. To punish, threaten or shame a child for expressing his feelings is the height of unfairness. It is a form of mind control, and it is overstepping our boundaries as parents.
The desire to limit feelings often comes from a well-meaning place. We want our children to be happy, and we think we can talk them into it if only they could see our side! “But it’s dark out; it’s not a good time to go the playground, right?”
It could also come from fear that allowing emotions will make them stronger, leading the child to feel more upset. But quite the opposite is true. Imagine if your spouse minimized your account of a horrible day, telling you it wasn’t so bad, or rolling his or her eyes and saying, “I don’t want to hear it!” Far from making you calm down, it would only compel you to reiterate or even exaggerate how upset you were. Or if it did cause you to stop complaining, would you have warm, fuzzy feelings toward your spouse? Or would your relationship suffer, as you realized he or she was more concerned about shutting you up than connecting with you? This is how your child also experiences the shushing of his feelings by his caregiver.
If you think of it on a societal level, not allowing feelings would be like the government limiting free speech. What if you went to jail or were ridiculed for speaking out against a law you found unfair? Adults are (or should be) allowed to write rude letters to the editor, protest loudly in public places, or put ballot question signs in their yard. These are ways to express disappointment or instigate change; children should have the same freedom in their own way.
Not every behavior a child uses to express his feelings should be allowed; you can stop hitting or destruction of property. But parents should not hinder most harmless displays of disappointment, however troubling or embarrassing they might be.
As the adult in the relationship, it is the parent’s job to assert his or her own rights and limitations, ideally before getting angry or resentful. You’re tasked with teaching children appropriate behavior. A straightforward, non-manipulative way to do so is not to let them infringe on your rights.
This is when the phrase “I won’t let you” and its variations are your best friend. I won’t let you hit me. I won’t let you use my phone. I can’t help you with that right now. I’m not going to give you another cookie. You will have to enforce these limits by physically following through with preventing the behavior. For example, say, “I won’t let you hit me,” while blocking your child’s fists with your hands. Or say, “I’m not going to give you another cookie,” while moving them out of your child’s reach.
The trick is not to get angry about your child’s testing behavior. Of course children will test limits; there is no need to take it personally and get upset about it, especially if you have control over the situation. In fact, showing your annoyance or rage actually grants your children control over your feelings. It’s not fair to kids to make them responsible for keeping their parents happy.
Finally, parents have to realize what they don’t have control over and not make that behavior a contest of wills. A good example would be screaming. You really can’t stop a person from screaming. You can do all sorts of coercive things to try to make them agree to stop screaming — threatening, bribing, hurting — but in the end, the person screaming is the only one who can choose to stop.
This is such a huge topic that it deserves more space and will be the subject of my next article. But suffice it to say that coercive education — public or private — stifles a child’s freedom by its very design. Parents should make every effort to rescue their kids from traditional schooling or at least counteract its effects.
You’re still in charge
None of this is to say that parents shouldn’t control their kids. Despite all this talk about freedom, part of being a parent is limiting your child’s freedom. You thwart their desire to touch the hot stove or careen headlong down the stairs. You can veto ice cream for dinner or insist that they bathe. You have the final say on where they live, where they go, how they are educated.
Parenting for freedom is not a black and white matter of allowing your children freedom or not. Rather, it is a spectrum, ranging from total control over one’s children on one end, to allowing them complete autonomy on the other. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle. For those of us who love freedom, the goal is to move farther toward the “autonomy” end of the spectrum, allowing our kids as much self-determination as is reasonable.
That is going to be a moving target for each family based on the parents’ and children’s temperaments and capabilities, as well as the age of the kids. We all bring our own fears and biases to the table, and those are going to color how much freedom we allow. Over time, you’ll find, as I did, that it is easier to cede control in areas that once seemed like a hill to die on. And as you’re letting go, your children are also getting older, making it easier to see them as capable human beings who can use their freedom well.