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.
You have presented number of good questions. I’m wondering if there are some factors that haven’t been addressed though. Maturation is a complex process.
For instance there is modeling to consider. Children learn more from watching parents as role models than they do from advice given.
Another thing to consider is the human need for boundaries and limitations. Some children seem incapable of finding them and suffer as a result. Is it not one of the duties of a parent to help a child navigate within a secure structure? There are many examples of failed endeavors (and not just among children) when structure was absent.
I am keenly aware of one instance in the life of one of my children when a violation privacy and the strict consequences that followed proved to be an absolute necessity. It was resented then but we have been thanked many times since for taking action.
Brain development is another factor. It is one of the reasons why juveniles should never be tried as adults in court. Children can be impulsive and not take into consideration the consequences of their actions. Where and when does the adult/parent intervene to enable a youngster to learn how poor decisions will affect them?
I general I find many points of agreement with your positions. However I also feel that adult-child relationships is a vast topic that has many facets and they can be explored for some time to come. Thank you for posting and I think you shouldn’t stop with this one but keep on.
Lots of great thoughts here for teaching young people, too. More and more, I offer up options and ideas, and then remind them that they are the only one who can guide their own life.
Thank you for this long and thoughtful response to my post, Joseph. I agree with you that maturation is a complex process. It also takes time. I believe childhood is the time when children try things and learn what works not only for them, but for the people they interact with, including their family members and friends. I certainly don’t advocate boundary-less childhoods or adulthoods. The world and our lives are full of boundaries, some that we get to draw and some that we don’t. From childhood through adulthood we are all confronted with boundaries that stop us short, or that we figure out how to go around or remove. That is a huge part of learning what it means to be human and in relationship with other people. I don’t agree that we need boundaries to feel secure. For that, we need people who we know love us unconditionally and who we can depend on absolutely when we’re struggling. Boundaries are everywhere. We create them as individuals and as large and small communities to protect ourselves; the nature and extent of those boundaries are as various as the number of people in the world. We spend our lives navigating all the boundaries imposed by the people we love and by the rules and laws we create or other people create for us.
As parents, we clearly have boundaries for what we can or want to tolerate in our children’s behaviors and actions. As I stated in this post, “ceding control and committing to trust” does not mean we disengage with our children. We all have boundaries and our children will bump up against them. The key for me is not to create artificial boundaries because we think a child needs to learn something. Boundaries should emerge from a real need that the parent has for her- or himself. If a child doesn’t want to eat whatever was fixed for dinner, the parent may feel generous enough to make something else, but usually we don’t have the time or energy. That is a boundary that the child can negotiate with the parent. Perhaps, the child can work with the parent to find some food that requires little to know preparation. The child might need to find something to eat in the fridge on their own. Or perhaps, they just won’t have much to eat that night. There doesn’t need to be a hard boundary in this situation; it can move and shift depending on everyone’s state of mind and the interaction between the parties. Or, there could be a hard boundary. A parent might know that she or he will never want to make something different for the child and will feel resentful about it, so she or he can be clear with the child that at mealtimes, this is the food and if the child is responsible for coming up with something else to eat if he or she doesn’t want the meal. A parent can also decide to include the child in meal planning and cooking to make sure that at least some of the meal is something everyone will eat. There are all kinds of possibilities.
I guess that’s my point. If parents see their children as people who are responsible for their lives, there are endless possibilities for finding ways to resolve conflicts with respect.
There are definitely times when a parent’s boundary will be very unwelcome to a child and cause lots of unhappiness and anger. It is always worthwhile for a parent to interrogate the boundary for themselves. What is the source of it? Does it feel reasonable in this case? Would the same boundary exist for an adult behaving in the same way, or would one choose a different way to respond? By all means, children need to know those real boundaries, even when they don’t like them. They are responsible for how they respond to them.
I couldn’t agree more that children often don’t take into consideration–they may not have any knowledge–of the consequences of their actions. Experiencing the consequences is what learning is. That’s how we all find out whether what we said or did was a good idea or not. As much as possible, I think parents should not intervene unless severe damage is clearly inevitable. If kids get used to parents intervening, they will come to depend on that and not learn their own limits or that they are, in fact, responsible for themselves. When we make poor decisions, there’s often pretty obvious feedback. Sometimes, there isn’t. And that’s okay, too. There will be many more times to practice and learn. Sometimes, people ignore the feedback and make bad decisions, anyway. We are all sovereign human beings. We get to choose to make bad decisions. If it’s bad enough that it hurts someone, there will be consequences.
I completely agree that the adult-child relationship is a vast topic of many facets. I have no illusions that this blog can tackle more than a small fraction of the vast universe of the topic.
Sarah, how fortunate your students are to have you as a teacher. And you are fortunate, too, to be able to have clear and supportive relationships with them.
Your prose is far more than semi-lucid, Shawna. This post is particularly awesome!
Thanks so much, Bruce. You’re just saying that because I linked to your blog. 😉 Seriously, I do so appreciate your support and complimentary words.