Who knows what’s best for a child? In this series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I have argued that each child should be able to decide what’s best for themselves. It means that, as parents and adults who interact with children, we commit to trusting kids to observe, explore, and make decisions about how to conduct their lives, interact with other people, and tackle all the circumstances that life presents to them.
Ceding control and committing to trust does not mean we disengage from our children. It is vital that we continue to love and interact fully with them, sharing our thoughts, reactions, and opinions. It’s important to tell them the wonderful or not-so-wonderful impacts their choices have on us. Our observations and our personal stories are relevant. At the same time, we must frequently interrogate our motives, because it is not our children’s job to take care of us, to make us feel successful, or meet some unmet need. They are not responsible for our fear and anxiety, or living up to our aspirations or standards. We must never forget that it is our children who are responsible for their lives and their choices. They get to decide what information and advice is useful to them, and what information to give us.
This is a radical proposal. What would happen if our kids really could decide how to conduct their lives? What would happen to compulsory schooling, mandatory testing, and homework, for example? Large industries exist because of the staggering multitude of ways that we as a society control children.
I was brought up short by an interaction between my friend and her daughter a few years ago. My friend’s daughter complained about her orthodontist’s conclusion that she needed braces. My friend put the choice right back in her daughter’s lap. The decision concerned her daughter’s teeth, so it was her daughter’s right and responsibility to decide whether to get braces. (She did choose braces.) When our son needed braces, it never occurred to me to give him the choice.
Even when we do our best to stand back, our opinions are pretty obvious, and our kids are hyper aware of what we think. They don’t blithely choose the opposite of what we believe is best. When they do choose a different course, we can remember, in the midst of our trepidation, to celebrate the fact that our children have the courage, despite our disagreement, to embark on a path that feels necessary to them. Our belief in our children’s ability to learn from good and bad decisions about their lives is infinitely more empowering than if we take over and make decisions that we think are better.
When children know in their bones that they are responsible for their lives, they take the responsibility seriously and factor in all the information they have, including the opinions and experiences of their parents and other adults they value. It may not always be obvious to us how important we are to our kids, but our love, our belief in them, and our fierce advocacy of their right to be the authors of their lives connects them to their essential core of strength and confidence.
There are times when someone should and does step in to prevent a child (or adult) from a serious or deadly injury. However, as borne out by the experiences of my own child and many others I worked with at The Clearwater School, when children are allowed to navigate their physical and emotional spaces minus adult management and meddling, they develop valuable skills and knowledge at an individual, organic pace that increases their awareness and motivation to keep learning and growing. It is perilous to a child’s development for someone else to decide what she should or should not do, precisely because it can short circuit the accuracy of her internal assessment capability which she will need for the rest of her life. Children begin developing their sense of what they are capable of when they are born. Every experience builds their emotional and physical knowledge of themselves, their growing capacities, and the complexity of the world around them.
What makes me—or any adult—believe that I know what’s best for a child, when it’s so hard to figure out what’s best for myself sometimes? Or why would I feel free to impose my will on a child, when I wouldn’t dream of doing that to an adult friend who’s struggling? And what about the times when I do know what’s best for me, but I don’t do it? Would I want my husband or a friend to take control and make me do the right thing?
Several times over the past few weeks, I should have been working on this blog. Instead, I chose to read a book, wash dishes, clean the house, or surf the web. Why? Because those things often felt a lot more appealing than wrangling swirling ideas into semi-lucid prose. I also know that I would feel better if I made more time to exercise and sing. Lots of us struggle with doing what’s best for ourselves, as evidenced by the sheer number of books and blogs that offer blueprints and road maps for self-improvement. Why should it be any different for our kids? Why not give them the respect and time to muck about in the murky shoals of being human? Maybe our lack of trust and compassion for our own mucking about makes it difficult to give the same to our children.
As a child, my son sometimes struggled with not living up to his own expectations and aspirations. He wanted to be able to draw better; he knew he needed to practice more. When he didn’t practice, he didn’t improve and complained about himself. Hearing him talk about his dissatisfaction made me feel hopeful, because I got a small glimpse into his personal assessment process and knew he was working on himself. I empathized with his frustration, and told him that he would find motivation to practice when it was important enough to him.
I listened to many similar disappointments from Clearwater students, who bemoaned falling short of their internal standards and chided themselves for doing something they found easy instead of persisting. All of us are painfully aware of our shortcomings and failures. Concrete ideas and suggestions may help, but having someone take the reins from us is always disempowering. It absolves us of responsibility. We need to give our kids space to wrestle with their own demons. It is the wrestling that matters, that allows them to become more and more themselves.
Witnessing the emotional pain of our children is heartrending, but it is something we truly cannot fix. We can be with them and not shy away from their pain, but it is theirs alone and their task to move through and recover from. Whenever I sit with my child in his pain, I remember that he is whole and complete, with access to lots of internal resources and people who love and care about him.
Throughout our lives we face decisions big and small. Should I go to college when I’m not sure what I want to study? Should I get a job for a while or accept my friend’s invitation to take a cross-country trip? Is this a person I can happily live with for a few years—or even for the rest of my life? Should I have a child? Should I take this job or keep looking? Should I buy a house or rent? Should I watch TV or read a book? Should I surf the web or spend 30 minutes exercising? Should I go to bed or stay up to watch a movie? Should I post something I know will be controversial on Facebook? Should I order a salad or fries with my burger? When someone asks my opinion, should I say what I really think or what they want to hear?
We cannot know the repercussions of our big and small decisions until we make them. And good answers to any of the above questions change with the situation. I grew up believing there were right and wrong answers, good and bad ways to do things, and that it was imperative that I choose the right answer and make the best choices. In my world, there was no room for mistakes. Consequently, when I inevitably made a mistake, the really useless thing I learned was that I needed to redouble my efforts to stop making mistakes and thereby avoid the resulting, crippling shame. One cannot grow and change with that world view.
Children make poor decisions; so do adults. Sometimes we have to make the same mistake more than once to connect the dots. Children and adults also make lots of great choices every day. What I take away from any particular experience is probably different than what someone else would learn from it. We cannot live someone else’s life and we should never try. We need to honor our children’s lives as they live them in real time, without judgment and second guessing. The more we strive to observe and appreciate, without interfering in our children’s choices, the more we encourage our children to trust their growing knowledge and creativity.
Do any of us really know what’s best for ourselves? Maybe knowing what’s best is not the point or the best question to ask—not for ourselves and especially not for anyone else. Can we make peace with the fact that life is full of uncertainty and risk, and that our choices are experiments based on what will always be incomplete information? The fallout of our decisions gives us more information about ourselves and the world, which can be helpful in future decisions—if we have the humility and grace to pay attention, adapt, and keep experimenting.