A variety of social trends have conspired to reduce trustful parenting, promote directive-protective parenting, and reduce children’s freedom over the past several decades. These include the decline of neighborhoods and loss of children’s outdoor play groups; the reduced experience that most people have with children before becoming parents; the exaggerated perceptions of dangers that originate in the media; the increased uncertainty about the future, and parents’ mistaken beliefs that they can protect their children’s futures through tightened controls; the continuous rise in the power of schools to interfere with children’s and family’s lives, even when school is not in session; and the rise of a pedagogical model of parenting, in which parenting is construed as teaching, or as enforcing school-like learning, and family life becomes lessons rather than life. Other contributing trends include the decline in family size, which allows parents to devote too much attention to each child, and the use of television as a babysitter, which keeps children indoors.
A Need for Freedom
The decline in children’s freedom is a serious social issue. It is responsible, I think, for the dramatic increases in childhood depression and suicide. People of all ages crave freedom, and they suffer when their freedom is taken away. As a society we have come to understand this principle as applied to adults, but we put our heads in the sand rather than face the evidence that children, too, need freedom in order to feel happy and to grow in healthy ways. If children had power, they would rise in protest to force the issue—as African Americans, women and homosexuals have done in our recent past and our present. But they don’t have power.
Suppose you are a parent who accepts the idea that children need freedom in order to be happy and to grow. How can you, despite all of the social forces working against you, become a more trusting parent and allow your children more freedom? Here are six suggestions. The first three help you restructure your own thoughts and habits, and the rest have to do with providing a healthy environment for your children.
Begin by examining your own values: What is a good life?
The first step toward trustful parenting is to examine your own values and think about how they might apply to your children and to your relationships with them. Do you value freedom, personal responsibility, selfinitiative, assertiveness, honesty, integrity and concern for the welfare of others? If these rank high in your system of values, and if they represent characteristics you would like to see in your children, then you will want to be a trustful parent. None of these values can be taught as school lessons. They are acquired or lost through daily life experiences that reinforce or suppress them.
You can help your children build these values by living them yourself and applying them in your relationship with your children. Trust promotes trustworthiness. Monitoring, prying and lecturing promote deceit. Continuous direction from others prevents children from experiencing freedom and acquiring the traits of personal responsibility and self-initiative. The continuous tests and the competitions that children are forced into at school and in other adult-directed settings promote a defensive approach to life and reduce the opportunities to practice honesty, assertiveness and true concern for others.
Let go of the idea that you can determine your child’s future or are responsible for it.
If you value freedom and personal responsibility, then you must respect your children’s rights to chart their own courses in life. Your ambitions cannot be their ambitions, and vice versa. The self-charting of life begins in infancy, not at age 18, 21 or 35. To learn responsibility children must learn how to make their own decisions in the course of each day, week and year; and they can learn that only by practicing it.
All loving, caring parents are concerned about their children’s futures, so it can be hard not to try to control those futures. But the attempt at control is self-defeating. When we try to determine our children’s destinies, we deprive them of the opportunities to take ownership of them. When we try to pilot our children through the daily and weekly mazes of life, we deprive them of the opportunities to practice their own piloting. When we offer lots of unsolicited advice, we reduce the chance that they will ask for our advice when they truly want and need it.
To learn to be a trustful parent you may have to remind yourself regularly that you are not your child and your child is not you. You are simply part of the environmental substrate that your child is using to create himself or herself. Your child’s destiny is to move beyond your world, into a world that you may not understand. You cannot control that movement, and you do your child a disservice if you prevent it. Whether your child succeeds or fails is up to your child, not you; and the measure of success or failure is your child’s, not yours. The world is full of unhappy lawyers, doctors and business executives; many clerks and janitors are happy, fulfilled and decent. Career success is not life success. You can be happy or unhappy in any profession; one factor that matters is the degree to which you believe your life is your own. These are truisms. They may even sound trite. But too many people forget them when it comes to their childcare practices.
Resist urges to be in continuous contact with your child, to monitor your child’s activities and learning, or to inquire about the details of his or her day.
In this day of modern technology, it is easy and tempting to track your child’s every move. You can observe through hidden cameras; you can track the Web pages that your child visits; you can insist on regular cell-phone reports of current whereabouts and activities; you can even install a global positioning device that lets you know for certain where your child is at every moment, as is done with prisoners. You may even justify such monitoring by convincing yourself that it demonstrates to your child that you care. But how would you like to be constantly monitored? How would you like it if someone—maybe your loving husband or wife—was watching, recording and evaluating all of your private activities? The message truly sent by such monitoring is, always, “I don’t trust you.”
But modern technology is not required to demonstrate such lack of trust. The old-fashioned method of constant, detailed inquiry does the trick as well. A trustful parent does not ask for detailed reports—from the child or anyone else—about those hours that the child spends away from the parent’s direct gaze. Everyone has a right to privacy, to secrets, to opportunities to experiment without being judged. Inquiry that infringes on privacy only invites dishonesty.
Move to a neighborhood where kids of all ages play freely outdoors, and where parents as well as children get to know one another.
As a trustful parent, you do have some major responsibilities concerning your children. You cannot pilot your child’s ship, or even teach many piloting skills, but you can and do provide the pond where your child learns to pilot. That pond is the neighborhood where you choose to live. Real estate brokers tell us that the leading concern of young families in finding their first home is the quality of the local public school, measured usually in terms of scores on standardized tests and percentage bound for college. But if you are a trustful parent, that will not be your main concern. You will be much more concerned with the quality of the neighborhood.
If children are to explore and play freely, they must have safe and inviting places to do so. A neighborhood of huge houses and big yards, but where there are no kids outside playing in groups, is not a good neighborhood for your child. Look for a neighborhood where kids of all ages can be found intermingling, playing and exploring without direct adult supervision. Your child will want to join them and will learn from them. There is safety in numbers. The more kids, and the bigger the age range of kids playing together, the safer and the more inviting it is for any one child to play outdoors. Often you will find this in neighborhoods where the homes are not stately, where most people are not wealthy, where there is less emphasis on school performance, and where kids play in shared spaces rather than in their own private yards.
Look also for a neighborhood where the parents themselves spend some time outdoors and get to know other parents and other parents’ children. Getting to know neighbors is the best way to assure yourself of the safety of the neighborhood and to learn about any real dangers that may exist. Parent friendship networks also provide opportunities for parents to share common sense and observations about children, become more knowledgeable about child development, and thereby learn to be more trusting of their own children. Moreover, other adults who know and are known by your children become people that your children can look to as additional models of adulthood. No matter how great you and your partner (if you have one) may be, your children need to get to know other adults as well, in real life situations, to develop their concepts of adulthood and to gain ideas about possible routes in life.
Work with other parents in your neighborhood to create safe places where children can congregate and play on their own.
It is hard these days to find neighborhoods with the qualities I’ve just described, and for financial or other reasons you may not be able to move to such a place, even if you could find it. So, you may need to create a neighborhood where you currently live. You might begin by taking the initiative to get to know other parents in your neighborhood and bring them together to discuss common concerns. Most parents will jump at such an opportunity, but someone needs to take the initiative. That, by itself, may promote interfamily friendships, which will spill over into children’s friendships and more outdoor play.
You might also work with other parents to develop local playgrounds and provide some sort of rotating system of playground supervision, if you think that an adult presence is needed for safety. As more children come out to play, and as the range of ages of children playing together becomes greater, you may decide that an adult presence is not always necessary. You may need to move a step at a time.
Remember, as a trustful parent you are not meeting with other parents in order to create “play dates” for your children; you are meeting with them in order to create a neighborhood where children can find their own friends and play freely as they choose. You might also find yourself creating shared outings, or vacations, or camping experiences with other families, at places where your children can play with others in relative freedom from you, while you enjoy the company of other adults.
When I was a college student in New York City, I worked as a “supervisor” at a place called the Clinton Youth Center. It had been set up by the YMCA/YWCA as a free alternative for kids who couldn’t afford the “real” Y. It was located in a run-down building in a neighborhood that most middle-class people would call a slum, but it was a haven for the local kids of all ages. There was a gymnasium, various sorts of secondhand art equipment, and rooms where kids could just hang out. Children and teenagers also played in the street right outside the building, which was made safe by their large numbers. At any given time after school, there were usually just two adults present (the main supervisor and me, and I was only 19 when I started the job), and there might have been as many as 200 kids. We were called “supervisors,” but we did very little supervising. We were just there to handle emergencies and to befriend kids who wanted to talk with us. Sometimes I would take a troop of little kids to Central Park for a visit to the zoo or an opportunity to play on a grassy field rather than the street.
The kids who came to the Center—nearly all of whom were from so-called impoverished homes—were remarkably well behaved. They governed themselves and they looked after one another. The freedom and age mixing were crucial to the success of this institution. The older kids gained a sense of responsibility through their interactions with the younger ones, and the younger ones learned many skills by watching and playing with the older ones. You could even find older kids helping younger ones with homework—not because any adult set them up to be tutors, but just because they really enjoyed helping.
(I also had another job when I was in college, as a “play companion” to a small group of rich kids, all the same age, who lived on the East Side. In sharp contrast to the Clinton Youth Center kids, those kids were brats. I quit that job after about five weeks of suffering through it. They were constantly testing me, and they won the contest. I remember wishing that I could enroll those kids into the Clinton Youth Center, were they could learn some manners from the “disadvantaged” kids.)
We need, in all communities today, settings like the Clinton Youth Center, where kids can find one another, interact freely with one another, adapt to an ongoing kids’ culture of decency, and practice responsibility. The Clinton Youth Center was not set up by philosophers of child development; it was set up by people who just had common sense about what kids want and need, and who realized that you don’t need a bundle of money to provide it.
Consider alternatives to conventional schooling.
School, as I have mentioned, increasingly infringes on children’s freedom and their opportunities to learn responsibility and self-direction. School has grown into something of a cultural monster that is devouring children’s and families’ freedom. As a society, we increasingly turn all childhood problems over to the school system, despite the obvious evidence that it can’t solve those problems. It is hard to send your children to a conventional school and still behave as a trustful parent, because the school system is perfectly designed to instill distrust. There are a variety of alternatives to conventional schooling; you can read about them in other articles I’ve written.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #43.
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