As a parent, one recurring theme is how much independence you should allow your child to have as they grow up.
Usually, the need to answer this question will become increasingly urgent when your children turn into robust teenagers. At this time, they may beg or taunt you into allowing you to give them more freedom.
From their point of view, it’s a simple equation: more freedom equals a better life. However, from your point of view, you understand that too much freedom can destroy an immature person’s life.
Let’s take a common example: Your innocent teenager might hang out with the wrong crowd and be tempted to experiment with the dark side of life, ranging from promiscuous sexuality to alcoholism and recreational drugs.
Worse still, they hide their behavior from you, which means that you can’t even prevent them from associating with people who have a negative influence on them because you don’t know who their friends are. If you suspect there’s a problem and you do know a couple of the individuals in your child’s peer group, you can check someone’s record online to discover past legal transgressions. But not all dangerous influences have a criminal record.
Here’s the core of the dilemma:
You want your children to be confident and to do the right things to create a good future. You also know that the world is not as safe as your innocent children assume.
Meanwhile, your children may get to a point where they are cunning enough not to share most of what they do with you. They may lie through omission. They may downplay certain events. They may distort facts that might trigger a red flag. Or they may just lie with a straight face about where they went and what they did.
Is Too Much Freedom A Bad Thing?
While freedom is a wonderful thing in itself, you have to be mature enough to use it well. Giving your teen freedom before they’re ready can lead to all sorts of problems; worse still, you might only become aware of these problems when they have reached a critical state – say, when your child clearly has a drug addiction problem or your teenage daughter tells you she is pregnant.
Is Too Little Freedom A Good Thing?
Unfortunately, swinging to the other end of the pendulum doesn’t help either. By overprotecting your child, by becoming a helicopter parent, you prevent them from maturing, developing opportunities, making choices, and accepting the consequences of their behavior. As a result of this overprotection, they are terrified of things like going out on a date or getting a job.
How to Strike the Right Balance
Fortunately, there are many ways to balance the tug-of-war between safety and autonomy.
Here are 3 practical ideas.
1. Learn to set limits.
While all children resent the idea of limits, it also gives them a sense of security. Ironically, telling them what they can’t do as long as they are under your roof makes them feel loved. Naturally, you have to start early. If you set limits when your children are preteens or teens, they will go out of their way to show you that they aren’t willing to abide by your new rules.
2. Don’t be afraid to issue orders, but be willing to discuss your reasons why
While many parents like to think of themselves as their child’s best friend, children actually find this highly confusing. After all, their ideas of friendship might involve many things that are playful but not respectful. For instance, if their room is a mess, say, “I want you to clean your room.” If they argue, as they probably will, don’t respond with “because I say so.” It’s an irrational response and your child will reflexively resent the order. Instead, explain that a clean room is the first step to creating a well-organized life and that a sense of orderliness will carry them far in life. This can then lead to an enlightening discussion about ideas like order and chaos, success and failure, clarity and confusion.
3. Expand your child’s horizons.
The fastest way to grow in life is to learn new things. While this may seem obvious to you, children have to be taught this lesson. Unfortunately, for most children, learning new things is often associated with sitting through long, boring classroom lectures or having to do homework when they want to play. In other words, learning is not associated with pleasure but with emotional pain. You can change this context of learning by introducing a sense of wonder. For instance, you can take your child to the planetarium to marvel at the cosmos; you can take them on field trips to historical sites; you can take them to Natural History museums.
By engaging your child in the world outside their circle of friends and their school environment, you are much more likely to have a child who has a keen sense of wonder and awe. Don’t be surprised that instead of using their smartphone to text their friends, they’ll start using it to research interesting scientific information.
Try out these three simple steps. You’ll be surprised how well they work. While it’s a tall order to become a perfect parent, these tips will almost get you there!