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Parenting as the Practice of Freedom

Author // Teresa Graham Brett, J.D.

Does parenting reinforce the control and domination in our culture, or is it a reflection of the freedom we claim to value so dearly?

When I stepped into the role of parent, I didn’t question the foundation upon which the parent-child relationship was built in our culture. I saw myself as an individual who was responsible for raising a child. It was merely a one-on-one relationship that I could define as I pleased. I now had the right to make the best choices I thought possible for myself and my child.


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I thought I understood the impact of my parenting choices on “my” child. I knew that if I urged him to wear blue and only play with toys made for boys, I was reinforcing harmful gender norms. I understood that if I chose not to discuss issues of race or sexual orientation or disabilities with him, he would be socialized in a culture that too often discriminates against individuals and groups. He would take in stereotypes and prejudices unknowingly, and perhaps he would also be the target of those stereotypes and prejudices.

As a social-justice educator, I saw the importance of education as the practice of freedom (from Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and others). But I did not see the importance of parenting as the practice of freedom.

I thought I was making very conscious choices about my parenting. Yet so many of my parenting choices were made unconsciously, especially when it came to being committed to freedom for the children in my life.


Freedom in Teaching and Parenting

As a teacher and educator, I was fully committed to empowering students. I wanted them to question what I brought into the classroom. I also wanted them to question what they brought into the classroom. I wanted them to bust open the particular worldview they were holding on to as a way to create broader understanding of difference, power and privilege.

As a parent, ironically, I had already made my decisions about the kinds of things my children should believe and learn.

I wanted them to accept what I knew as best. Whether it was certain foods (organic, whole, healthy), beliefs (justice, fairness, equality), or behaviors (respect, acceptance, cooperation), there was no need for them to think critically about these issues. If I am honest about my approach during the first half of my parenting “career,” it was about ensuring that my children accepted my “wisdom” and decisions without question. I was stuck in an unconscious frame of reference that parents should exercise control over children to ensure their health, safety and emotional development.

I valued freedom in my educator role, and I valued passive acceptance (of my beliefs only!) in my parenting role. I had substituted “progressive” values for “traditional” values, but my parenting still reinforced the dominant paradigm of control.

Even as I write this, I have to smile and think about the arrogance of my belief that I had it all together and knew what was right for the children in my life.


Rebellion and Awakening

The first child in my life began to refuse to passively accept my notions of what he should be, beginning at about age 5. It probably started much earlier than that, but I refused to see it. His rebellion began my process of awakening. I began to see the ways in which my parenting was most decidedly not the practice of freedom, despite my commitment to it in education.

Thus began my journey of seeing parenting in our culture for what it truly was. In spite of all my reading, studying and soul-searching, I was still operating unconsciously as a parent.

I did not abandon my values, but I did decide that I needed to challenge my underlying beliefs about the role of parents and their use of power and control over children. In a classroom, and in the family, adults typically exercise power over children. In fact, it is expected. Adult power over children is embedded in our educational, legal and familial systems. And that power is unquestioned for the most part.

In our use of power over children, we reinforce domination and control. If our values include freedom, empowerment, trust and respect, controlling and using power over children is a violation of those values. Our parenting reinforces domination, rather than parenting as the practice of freedom.

I began to question my own childhood experiences, and realized that the pain of being disempowered as a child had stayed with me in unexpected ways. The reality is, most of us grew up in homes, schools and societies that denied a child’s right to self-determination. Because this is such a common experience, we believe that it’s just the way the world works.

In our culture, parents who allow their children to exercise choice and control over their lives are considered irresponsible. As parents, we hear this message on a regular basis.


Freedom in Practice

How do we parent as the practice of freedom? To answer this question, I want to start with a quote from bell hooks: “[T]eachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a way that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that ‘the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy he or she cannot help many people.’”

As adults committed to parenting as the practice of freedom, we have to be equally committed to our own wholeness as we are to the wholeness of the children in our lives. When we ignore our own painful experiences as children, when our prior disempowerment remains unnamed and hidden, we unintentionally reinforce power and control as a way to feel safe.

When children rebel and question our right to control them, this often triggers feelings we have from childhood. Those unresolved feelings of loss may show up as fear, anger or frustration.

If we were denied the right to express our thoughts and feelings as children, we become deeply uncomfortable when the children in our lives do so. We had no models in our lives for managing these feelings, so we want to shut them down.

We can use the triggers, the discomfort and the conflict as a way to bring to consciousness our past experiences and the ways in which our culture reinforces control and domination. Our work is to begin to understand how our childhood experiences impact our lives now as parents. As we commit to our own wholeness and well-being, we are able to reintegrate the feelings from our past. We are liberating ourselves from the control and domination we experienced as children in order to ensure the freedom of the next generation.

Parenting as the practice of freedom allows us to rewrite our past and create the space for children to be the authors of their own stories.


Pathways Issue 39 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #39.

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