I remember when one of my children was around age 3 we had one of those nights where you haven’t done the grocery shopping and you just couldn’t be bothered so you end up getting takeaway. We presented her with her nuggets and chips, only for her to look at it and say, ‘No thanks, I’ll have a salad’.
So we ate our plates of unhealthiness while she dug into a bowl of cucumber and capsicum, her favourites.
Although my children making sensible choices is not a rarity, it still surprises me. The idea that without rules and limits children will be irresponsible and unhealthy is so pervasive.
It is generally believed that children require adult control and micromanagement, and without it there would be dire consequences. Control is justified as for children’s own good.
But control is not the solution, it is the problem.
What does control do to a child’s decision making abilities? Ruins them. Instead of being able to listen to their own bodies and needs, a child’s desires are now caught up in a game of power. Their real needs are overshadowed by the very understandable wish to be in charge of their own lives and bodies. Where do they have the greatest ability to gain back some control? In matters like eating and sleeping where parents actually have little real influence. Sure they can attempt to force, coerce, punish, and shame children, but at the end of the day you can’t really make someone eat or sleep. Children know this.
And so, many people have difficulties in these areas, not because children are untrustworthy or incapable, but because control has muddied the waters. And now we have this view of children that they don’t want to be healthy unless forced, that they simply won’t choose to sleep at appropriate times without coercion, that they need to be trained to be respectful, helpful, polite, and kind humans.
If you are lucky enough to know a child growing up without control, punishment, shame, coercion, force, and arbitrary rules, you know this is not true. But most people, having never encountered such a child, are unable to fathom that things can work another way. The majority have no concept of what a parent child relationship that is not based on power would look like. They cannot imagine how things could work if there were no rules and how everyone could live harmoniously if children weren’t made to obey.
There is so much fear that without control, children will be ruined! So much fear that people are unwilling to try at all. They are also motivated to believe their control is necessary and beneficial, and so they defend it fiercely. Even though it doesn’t serve them well, even though they struggle with their children’s behaviour, even though it doesn’t work, even though they haven’t tried another way.
People do not know what children are actually like.
People have no idea what child development looks like without the addition of parental control. People don’t know children.
Though they are unaware of how a child would act if they hadn’t been routinely controlled from birth, that doesn’t stop them from speculating.
I wish more people knew. I wish more children were trusted. I am committed to sharing my experience in the hope that we can move towards more equal, trusting, and respectful relationships with the children in our lives.
I know many children who are free from control and they are magnificently unique. When unburdened by the expectations and demands of others they are able to truly be themselves. But they do have some things in common, and it’s not what mainstream parenting thinks they will be.
Let me tell you about kids without control…
They are capable
Having never been told that they are not capable, and having copious opportunities to explore and develop their abilities, children free from control are capable! They know themselves and their limits, they are confident in what they can and cannot do, they ask for help and guidance when they need it (knowing that they’re not risking their fun being ruined by control). They are capable of managing their own time, making decisions about their own appearance and bodies, deciding on their own interests and what they want to learn, trusting their instincts, having reasonable conversations about disagreements, and much more.
They are trustworthy
“Many people seem to think that the way to take care of children is to ask in any situation what is the most stupid and dangerous thing the children could possibly do, and then act as if they were sure to do it.” – John Holt, How Children Fail
The way most people talk you would think kids want to be unhealthy and unsafe. That if they weren’t controlled by adults they would only eat unhealthy food, never sleep, constantly dress inappropriately for the weather, and generally just behave recklessly. If those were our instincts, would the human species really have gotten so far?
Children want to be healthy! They also want to be safe, kind, respectful, and polite. They are nice people! They are constantly observing, experimenting, and learning how the world and society work by watching the adults around them. They have a desire to do the right thing and are considerate of others. Unless, of course, they are controlled. And then some things or behaviours become ‘forbidden fruit’, a lot more enticing. It starts to look like children want to do the wrong thing, when in fact control has just tainted their experience of the world.
Children who aren’t controlled know that they are free to experiment with things like food and sleep, etc, without punishment or consequences. They know they will be supported to work out what is best for them. They are open to guidance. They are trustworthy.
They are respectful
“It is usually assumed that children who aren’t made to obey their parents will grow to be unruly, disrespectful, and ‘out of control’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children who are treated with respect are respectful of others. Children who are listened to as equals listen to others as equals. Children whose opinions are valued value others’ opinions. A family where parents and children are allies is a peaceful family.” – Rue Kream, Parenting a Free Child
You cannot hope to raise respectful children by treating them disrespectfully. That makes no sense at all. Children learn to be respectful by seeing what it looks and feels like to be respected. Free children are respected and respectful.
They are helpful
“It has always bothered me to see how some parents chase their children away from productive jobs. I have seen it many times, and while I understand the impulse, I have little empathy for the shortsightedness of it, because the truth is that long before they are capable of truly helping, kids desperately want to contribute. Like all of us, children just want to be needed. It’s our job to make sure they actually are.” -Ben Hewitt, Home Grown
The mistake many people make in trying to teach helpfulness is to assign and enforce chores. Children want to be helpful, but making it into a job that you have to do in order to gain rewards or avoid punishment thoroughly ruins any feelings of genuine helpfulness that previously existed. Children who are respected express genuine helpfullness, sometimes in their own unique ways, because they want to contribute and they feel that their efforts are meaningful and appreciated.
They are compassionate
Having your feelings heard, validated, and respected, means you are empathetic to the feelings and needs of others. Respected kids, whose feelings are not routinely dismissed or criticised, are compassionate.
They are connected
Relationships based on respect, trust, freedom, equality, and unconditional love, are connected relationships. Respectful parents are connected to their children.
No human likes to be controlled. Children naturally resist control and it damages connection, making a parent’s job much much harder. Connection is the key to parenting. Once children are old enough to break free from control, they will. If you have a connected relationship, however, you will always be there to support, guide, and share in your children’s life. And isn’t that all we want? To be connected to our children? Control risks breaking that.
“If you force control now, you risk your influence later.” – Lori Petro
They are themselves
Children who are free from control, and supported in their autonomy, are truly and completely themselves. You get to see the wonderful people they become. Not a version of them that has been shaped and moulded by the expectations of others. Children deserve to be accepted for who they are and allowed to be authentically themselves. It’s a pleasure to know them.
They are not easily swayed
Children who are not used to having to submit to orders are not easily influenced to do things they are uncomfortable with. They know their worth and will question even authoritarian adults if they feel they are being unfair or unreasonable. People often think this is a bad thing because once they have a job they will need to presumably follow directions. Possibly. But there’s a difference between willingly entering into a relationship where you agree to do what is asked of you (that you can leave at any time), and having no say over the decisions other people make for your life. A child who is regularly disempowered in this way comes to believe they do not have the right to make their own decisions, or that they may be punished for doing what they think is best. That’s very dangerous.
Children who are respected and free from control know that they have the right to make decisions that they are comfortable with and are less influenced by the coercive tactics of others.
They are intrinsically motivated
“I once heard someone defend that belief by declaring that “human nature is to do as little as necessary.” This prejudice is refuted not just by a few studies but by the entire branch of psychology dealing with motivation. Normally, it’s hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong. It may suggest that someone feels threatened and therefore has fallen back on a strategy of damage control, or that rewards and punishments have caused that individual to lose interest in what he’s doing, or that he perceives a specific task—perhaps correctly—as pointless and dull.” – Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
Children without control are intrinsically motivated. They are not used to having to meet other people’s demands or expectations. Nor have they become dependent on praise and recognition for the efforts. They do things for themselves, because they want to, because they’re drawn to learn and contribute. They also have the pleasure of fully owning their achievements.
They are free
Children without control experience a feeling of freedom that is very rare in children these days. They are free to be themselves, free to make their own choices, free from coercion, free to have an input, free to choose how they spend their time. Free and empowered.
They are honest
Just as we are honest with them, children are honest with us. Without the threat of punishment, there is not as much fear of mistakes or owning up to them. Why do people lie? Because of the consequences of getting caught. Children who are supported, accepted, and unpunished are more likely to be honest.
They value your opinion
When your opinion doesn’t come with demands and expectations, children are more likely to value it. When you’re part of a connected relationship, you naturally care about the other person’s feelings and needs. Many fear that without control they would have no influence over their children in areas where they were concerned for their well-being. This is unlikely in the context of a respectful relationship. Children are open to hearing your concerns and coming up with ways that everyone can get their needs met. People often ask ‘what about times when they have to do what I say?’ The thing is, this is not a huge problem for respectful parents because children are willing to listen and problem solve. It actually is possible to find ways to meet everyone’s needs the vast majority of the time.
“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” – Peter Gray, Free to Learn
Control is not a necessary ingredient for learning. In fact, it’s detrimental. Children are capable of learning everything they need to know without force, coercion, rewards, teaching, or bribery. Free children learn. And they do it passionately and joyfully.
They are enjoyable
Being around a free child is a joy! It is heartbreaking that so often children are viewed as a nuisance or a problem to be managed. Our relationships with children can be so much more. Trying to control a free human being is exhausting! When you give that up and move towards a more equal and respectful relationship you are able to see them as the truly wonderful and unique person that they are. They are so awesome to be around!
Of course, they are not always these things, and some days are harder than others. They are human, after all! Humans make mistakes, have bad moods, and act rudely sometimes. And that’s ok too. We can’t expect perfection from them, especially when we are not perfect ourselves.
On the whole, children without control are capable, trustworthy, respectful, and so awesome to know. Many people dismiss this truth because they tried relinquishing control ‘one day’ or ‘one week’ and it didn’t ‘work’. But it doesn’t really work like that. A child who has experienced a lot of control cannot suddenly flip a switch when it is taken away and know how to listen to their needs and act safely and responsibly when they have never had the chance to practice these things. They also likely don’t believe that they have genuine freedom and therefore seek to indulge in all the ‘forbidden’ things as much as possible before control is reinstated. A child who has ‘tried freedom’ for one day, or only in certain areas doesn’t accurately represent what a free childhood looks like. It takes time. But it’s worth moving through the discomfort in order to have authentic relationships which respect children’s autonomy and freedom.
Giving up control is a scary thought to most when it’s all they know. The idea that parenting = control is so deeply ingrained. But what if the struggles we had with children weren’t an inevitable part of childhood, but rather a symptom of control? The natural consequence of people wanting a say in their own lives and trying to break free of restraint. Control makes children act unreasonably, not freedom.
Children are good. Children are trustworthy. Children are capable.
Children deserve freedom.