This upcoming series of posts has been more of a struggle to write than previous ones, in large part because the theme feels more radical than those in earlier posts. In spite of my obvious passion for championing children’s right to self-determination, my current theme—that children know what’s best for themselves—challenges me, too.
I propose that all of human life is a journey of learning about ourselves and the world. Whatever our age, we have varying levels of self and world knowledge. We acquire that knowledge by living, which is fundamentally a process of experimentation and discovery.
Often, the more we know, the better able we are to make choices for ourselves that are satisfying and rewarding. Yet, life continues to present all of us with unfamiliar or downright scary situations and choices that we must navigate with uncertain results. Sometimes we avoid the pitfalls; sometimes we don’t. And our feelings about uncharted territory are all over the map: confidence, fear, confusion, curiosity, anger, hope, doubt, excitement, despair.
It can be helpful when someone who has more knowledge in a specific area provides advice and feedback, but we have all experienced being on the receiving end of unwelcome advice that feels like interference and a lack of trust in our capacity to learn and grow. If you don’t think children also resent unwelcome advice, however well-meaning, I recommend spending a little time remembering your own childhood interactions with condescending adults who told you what to do because they knew best.
My thoughts for this series were sparked by a blog post by Mark Manson, self-described author, thinker, and life enthusiast, in Vox, “3 Destructive Things You Learned In School Without Realizing It.”
The third destructive thing he listed was “You learned to depend on authority”. At the end of that item—also the end of the piece—he wrote, “No one knows what’s right for you as well as you do. And not letting kids discover that fact for themselves may be the biggest failure of all.”
His statement reminded me of the slogan a co-founder and parent at The Clearwater School submitted for the school’s publicity fliers many years ago: “Who knows what’s best for your child? She does.”
I did not believe that slogan would convince parents, hunting for a better schooling experience for their children, to look more closely at Clearwater. It felt too radical, too outrageous. I assumed most parents believed that they were the ones who knew what was best for their children. A common rallying cry for parents who feel oppressed by officious people telling them what to do, or not, with their kids is that no one—not the government, not school administrators, not teachers, not child development experts—knows better than parents what is best for their children.
The idea that children can and should decide what is best for themselves seemed to me to be so far out of mainstream norms that marketing materials with that message would appear absurd, laughable even. More to the point, did I believe that slogan was true?
With little effort, contrary examples come flooding in. A child wants to watch hours of TV or play hours of video games every day. A child wants to eat all her Halloween candy in one sitting, or refuses to eat anything but pizza or mac & cheese. A child reaches to touch a hot stove and gets a third-degree burn.
Even more tragic and horrible examples bubble up: children firing guns stored carelessly in their homes; children choosing to smoke, drink, or take drugs; car accidents caused by teenagers drag racing on public roads. Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that obsessively focuses on myriad dangers and alarming stories, daily accounts of childhood peril pummel us. The fear of all the horrific things that could happen to our children is unbearable and jolts us into proactive hypervigilence.
When our kids are little, we do our best to prevent physical injuries, from minor scrapes to more serious things like burns or broken bones. My son’s minor childhood injuries often felt like a punch to my own gut. I consoled him, and he always recovered just fine, but sometimes I would continue to stew about the injury and wish I could have prevented it. Why was it so important to me to prevent him from experiencing any pain? If I am honest, it’s because I believed that he was incapable of recovering and coming out stronger. What made me believe that he was so fragile? Partly, it was a projection of my own (unconscious) perceived fragility. Whatever the source of my anxiety, it is shared by more and more people in our culture.
For example, our playgrounds no longer contain traditional play structures that gave many of us thrills and pride of mastery when we were children. As a result, there is growing concern that the emphasis on playground safety interferes with children’s ability to develop their physical skills and test physical limits by taking calculated risks. It is hopeful that in a few places, particularly in Europe and some places in the U.S., adventure playgrounds have been created that allow kids to play with abandon, explore, and access tools, fire, building materials and other raw materials. Adventure playgrounds do have adult playworkers who can step in if needed, but their goal is to remain separate from children’s activities and avoid interfering as much as possible. In my opinion, even the non-intrusive presence of adult playworkers is an affront to children’s capability and demonstrates lack of trust. (In our litigious, risk-averse culture, I suspect the presence of playworkers has a lot to do with minimizing liability and insurance company payouts.)
From my current vantage point, with a grown son who is healthy, capable, and provides and cares for himself, it is easy to look back and see that it worked to allow him to chart his own course, making decisions about how to spend his time, what to eat, and when to go to bed, for example. Although I had blind spots, I was committed to trusting that he did, in fact, know what was best for himself. I had plenty of doubts, felt uncomfortable and out of control lots of times, and I didn’t always stay the course.
More about that next week.
Thanks so much for this 2 part blog! Some great things for me to let percolate, especially the teeth brushing.
Thank you so much for reading, Raven! These questions are fraught, don’t have right answers, and provide lots of room for exploring more deeply how to create trusting, connected relationships with our children. Good luck with navigating the teeth brushing issue!
This is a great series. I’d love to hear more from parents who have allowed their kids to make more of their own decisions and how it has turned out now that the kids are older. My son attends a Sudbury school, and I’m soooo glad he has the experience of empowerment and self-governing that he has there. I often struggle with how much of that to give him at home. He is 5 years old, and we argue every night over things like brushing teeth, and going potty before bedtime (or going potty ever, for that matter) and we have a “no sweets kept in the house” rule, although he is allowed as much sugar outside of the house as he’d like. I wonder sometimes about removing at least some of these restrictions, others I can’t even imagine how to avoid. For instance: when my son was an infant and toddler, he didn’t like to get dressed. There was about a 2 year period where I had to physically force him into clothes every time. It felt terrible, but I couldn’t take him outside naked in 30 degree weather. Right now, the potty issue is another sticky wicket. I’d love to let him figure out on his own when to go, but he just won’t go when given the chance not to. He has great bladder control, and never has a big, puddle-making accident. Instead, he just slowly dribbles into his pants all day. You often wouldn’t even know they are dirty unless you get your nose too close! Because no one notices, and he doesn’t have to change his pants when he wets them, he is not inclined to change the habit. I don’t particularly like having him sit on our shared furniture in dirty pants, though, so I feel like I have to try to make him visit the potty. I also don’t want him waking in the wee hours of the morning (so to speak) because he didn’t go potty at bedtime. Sweets are an even more complex issue. The truth of the matter is that I don’t do well when there are sweets in the house. I’m not insane about it, but I just end up eating more of them than I’d really like when they are constantly available. So, for my own health, I choose to keep them out of the house (we do purchase single-servings of things to bring home sometimes, and occasionally make homemade cookies and things like that).
Thank you for your comment, Carmelite. You definitely have some challenging things to work through with your son, who is very clear about what he wants or doesn’t want. Some of the issues you’re dealing with directly affect you and, in my opinion, it’s fine for you to make your own boundaries clear. It makes sense to me that you wouldn’t want your son to sit on your furniture with wet pants. This is probably a long shot, but would he be willing to wear a diaper all day to catch the dribbles and keep his own clothes dry? Failing that, it seems reasonable to me to set a boundary around your furniture and tell him he cannot sit on things you all share. You could designate a certain, non-upholstered chair as his and he could move it to the places he wants to be able to sit.
It is helpful for children to understand how their actions affect their family and friends, and you need to be clear about what you can live with. Thinking about what you can do to set boundaries that are real and accomplish what you really need right now, rather than trying to change your son’s behavior, is tricky because it’s so easy to focus on the behavior and wish it were different. Avoiding a clash of wills is the key. Your son will figure out the peeing thing, even though it’s such a pain right now. Do you not want him to wake up in the middle of the night to pee because he wakes you up? Does he come get you? If that’s the case, you can explain to him that he’s capable of using the bathroom on his own and you won’t get up with him. Or you can see it as a time to be with him in a sweet way in the middle of the night, even if it interferes with your sleep.
What is the quality of interaction you want with your son? How can you figure out ways to enjoy who he is, celebrate his strength of will and unwillingness to submit to your authority, and make sure you are clear about what you need in each of these situations?
It’s clear you don’t want to have sweets in the house that you can access. Allowing single-servings that everyone knows are not for you should make it easier for you to not indulge. I know I would feel guilty if I ate candy that was clearly purchased by or for my son. If you are worried about your son’s relationship to sweets becoming the struggle that you have, that is something you cannot know and making that kind of projection about him does him a disservice. Teasing apart what is you and what is him is important, but also difficult. Since your son is going to a Sudbury school, I would encourage you to use other parents and staff there as sounding boards for what you’re struggling with. You will get a lot of support and understanding, and that is tremendously helpful.
I admire your honesty and empathize with your struggle. You are courageous to be asking these questions, trying to figure out what you need, and working to respect your son. Please feel free to keep in touch.