One of the fundamental challenges of parenting is balancing the amount of freedom that you allow your child with the amount of limitations and age-appropriate restrictions that you have to impose on them to give them appropriate choices and responsibilities. The ideal amount of freedom to give a child consists of those choices (and only those choices) that are age-appropriate, and reasonable for your child’s level of development. This is not mean that your child is going to make the best choices, but that, given one or several experiences of making poor choices in a certain area, they will be able to learn to make better choices as they learn from their own experience and suffer through the consequences of making poor choices.
Deciding whether or not your child is old enough to make a specific choice can be very difficult and causes parents a great deal of anxiety. To complicate things, there are no ironclad answers to fit each child at each age in each family, everyone is different. For example, how old should your child be when you allow him the choice to moderate the amount of desert that he eats? Most would agree that a five-year-old should not be given endless access to candy and ice cream whatever they want. Most would also agree that we should not be telling our 17-year-old what they should be eating, because they will be on their own shortly and will have to be making those decisions on their own. Like learning a foreign language, learning to follow rules is most easily done as a child.
Giving children too much freedom chronically typically results in kids being out of control, whereas giving children too little freedom tends to paralyze them (which is a less obvious problem to adults, but nevertheless causes many difficulties for the child later on).
Problems resulting from giving children too much freedom
As adults, the out of control person manifests as someone who breaks laws, may be in prison, gets fired from jobs due to breaking rules for not following through with responsibilities, and has a difficult time maintaining relationships with others due to infringement on the rights of other people. These people are used to being able to do whatever they want, because as children, they were given far more freedom than they should have been, and so they lack the practice operating within and organizational system that imposes limits.
Difficulty following rules can result in difficulty functioning within society, school, work, a company, or a family. If people don’t learn how to follow rules early in life, they will simply break them whenever they get frustrated with rules as adults. If they do this in their interpersonal relationships, their friends will fill resentful and turn away from the eventually. If they break rules in society they may be punished by the legal system. Children who have difficulty following rules are typically diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or conduct disorder (from least to most severe).
In my experience, many kids with oppositional defiant disorder aspire to join the military. I find this very interesting. It is as if these children know that the military is going to teach them the things their parents never taught them. For these kids, the idea of someone yelling at them while they do push-ups in the mud for waking up too late is highly appealing to them. They seem to unconsciously know that they are going to learn discipline responsibility and that this will help them become successful in life.
One name given to parents who do not do this job is permissive. These parents generally let the child do too much of what they want, and do not hold them accountable to age-appropriate rules and responsibilities, often because they are afraid of what the child will do (be angry at them, throw a tantrum, try to get even) if they hold the line.
Most permissive parents I have observed have become quite angry by the time they seek professional help. They tell me that they are “tired of being walked all over.” They tell me that they are “tired” in general, and that they tend to do most of the work around the home, because their children don’t help out with household chores, because there is no incentive or reinforcement in place that would give them a reason to do so. Permissive parents are also often “helicopter parents”, parents who (literally or figuratively), followed closely behind their children compensating for and correcting any errors or mistakes their children make, causing the consequences of their child’s poor choices to fall directly on their shoulders, rather than on the child’s. In other words, helicopter parents “rescue” their children from experiencing any hardship in the short term. The problem with this however, is that their children will end up experiencing much more hardship in the long-term, because they have become “enabled” to be irresponsible and careless, and gradually become more and more dependent on being in relationships with someone who is able to protect them from adverse consequences. Permissive parents sometimes tend to spoil their children, because their children have learned over time that all they have to do is demand, yell, and threaten their parents and they will get whatever they want. The parents experience a mixture of anger, guilt, powerlessness, and confusion as they realized that they just handed their child $20 for the movies when the child was swearing at her and calling her names just a few hours ago, and hasn’t done any chores for two weeks.
In many cases parents are explaining limits to the child verbally, and this is a good thing and is important. However, usually the problem lies in that there is no follow-through of consequences for not following limits. Children take rules without consequences as simply advice or optional recommendations. Parents will tell me, “he knows right from wrong”, but with the child really knows is what the parents think is right and what the parents think is wrong. The reality is that the children have their own opinions about what is right and wrong, and it is often different from the parents opinions, often the children realized a long time ago that there’s no point in verbalizing their opinions because they will not be listened to. It is great when parents explain right and wrong to their children, and bestow them with verbal pearls of wisdom, but this alone does not teach the child how to live life successfully. The child needs to experience their own consequences (good or bad) from making their own choices, in order to decide for themselves what they believe is right or wrong. The task of the parents then becomes shaping the child experience and environment by giving them age-appropriate choices and allowing them to make whatever choice they deem fit (even when the parent does not agree on the choice), and experience the consequences of their own actions in order to practice effective decision-making.
Problems resulting from giving children too little freedom
often the problems resulting when a child receives too little freedom cannot be seen until the children becomes an adolescent or preadolescent. This is largely due to the fact that small children are to powerless (physically and cognitively) to rebel against their parents. These parents are sometimes called “dictator parents” and have an attitude of “you will do it because I told you to, no questions allowed.” In this case, is the child usually becomes angriest, as their fundamental and underlying need for autonomy and making their own choices thwarted by the parents chronically over time. This can cause other underlying needs to become unmet as well. For example, the parent who does not let their child outside enough (e.g., due to the parents anxiety of the child getting hurt), may have unmet needs for physical movement, play, and other developmental activities that are crucial and essential to the child’s proper growth and later success in life. I’ve noticed the children who grow up with dictatorial parents have a relatively high frequency of emotional cut off in late adolescence and the rest of adulthood from their parents. They learn how to successfully navigate rules and complex limits in various organizations, however they have an impaired relationship with themselves because they have been told their entire lives that they should not do what they want to do. Children who lie and deceive their parents often do so out of subtle rebellion against unfair restrictions that should be imposed on a child half their age. Kids will begin sneaking, and then move over the adolescent years to more and more overt deception and finally blatant disregard for the rules, as the parents’ power over them inevitably fades with time and the cost of being caught and disapproved of diminishes. Sometimes there will be a critical moment in which the adolescent gets in a physical fight with his dictatorial father and a relationship is never the same, as the father realizes that he can no longer overpower and dominate his child. Of course, as the entire history of the relationship has been this way, it is often the case that neither the adolescent or the father knows how to reconcile and form a more functional relationship that has been missing for 16 or 17 years. The adolescent is at the stage of life when they will be leaving the family, and it is simply too late to begin the two-way loving respect that should have been provided to the child starting from infancy and toddlerhood.
Guidelines for giving your child age-appropriate freedom and choices
- Talk to other parents (who you respect and think are good parents) about what they let their child decide on and what they don’t. Age-appropriate freedom is culture and time specific. What was age-appropriate for a 10-year-old in 1955 is not the same as what is age-appropriate today. What is age-appropriate for child in Mexico at age 10 is not the same as what is age-appropriate for child who is 10 years old and United States. Different contexts resulting from different cultures or time periods create a whole new set of rules and variables that affect what a child should be able to choose and what he shouldn’t.
- Ask yourself the question, “if he makes the choice I don’t want him to make, will he be able to handle the consequences?” Most parents today are far too protective of their children when it comes to letting them experience the consequences (e.g., failing a class, falling down, being cold or hungry, getting in a scuffle or argument, spending all their money, or simply being upset, etc.). Listen to your gut feeling and only intervene if you feel that they really won’t be able to deal with the consequences or will be harmed if they do.
- Also ask yourself, “will I be able to live with whatever choice he makes?” If he is throwing a tantrum in a restaurant, don’t give him the choice of making the whole family leave immediately if you are halfway through your hamburger. The consequences of the child’s poor choices should fall on the shoulders of the child, not make you miserable. I am constantly trying to teach parents who I work with, “focus on making yourself happy, because if you are happy, the child will be happy.”
- Read some parenting books. This topic is one of the main points, if not the heart of, every parenting book I’ve ever come across. They can explain this topic in far more detail. Balancing freedom and limits pervades every area of a person’s life and is arguably the most important realm of preparation of childhood, along with attachment/connection to others.