Freedom Is Not Conditional: 8 Ways to Tell If You’re Respecting Your Child’s Autonomy
I recently spent 4 magical days camping in nature with our closest unschooling friends. Nineteen free, respected, unschooled kids played for four days nonstop.
Nineteen kids free to eat when hungry.
Nineteen kids with no bedtime, free to sleep when tired.
Nineteen kids free to wear whatever they liked.
Nineteen kids who had their feelings heard and respected.
Nineteen kids free to go wherever they chose, play with whoever they wanted.
Nineteen kids free to be themselves.
Nineteen kids who meaningfully contributed to the group.
Nineteen kids who were inspired, free, joyful, and a pleasure to be around.
Thirty-three people living together as equals.
There is really nothing like spending a few days surrounded by so many unschooled families to reinforce to you that you’re on the right track. It was wonderful, and I could not be more certain that this is what children deserve.
All children are equally deserving of respect, trust, autonomy, and freedom.
I hear a lot of arguments against aspects of respectful parenting that go like this… ‘that wouldn’t work for my child because of x reason’.
Now, I want to be clear that I know that every family is unique and things work differently in every home. But the thing is, all children are equally deserving of respect, trust, autonomy, and freedom.
Freedom is not conditional. It is not reliant on children making choices that you would have chosen for them anyway. A child is not ‘allowed’ freedom contingent upon them ultimately doing what you want. That’s not exactly freedom, is it? Nor is it freedom if you will inevitably take the choice away if they do something you don’t approve of.
Freedom is not something to give and take away at your inclination. The point is, it is what children deserve, whether or not it ends up being ‘convenient’.
If another person’s autonomy interferes with your needs being met, the solution is not to control them or force them to comply with your wishes. Instead, you would talk to them about it, problem solve, and come to an agreement that you are both happy with. And so it is the same with children. This looks different at different ages, but the principle is the same. Control and arbitrary rules are not the answer.
Yes, sometimes autonomy does need to be overridden by an adult in certain medical circumstances, or when a child needs to be kept safe, but even then this can be done gently and as respectfully as possible. These are not usually everyday occurrences. A child feeling the consequence of tiredness because they stayed up later than they should have is not an emergency. A child choosing not to wear a jacket outside on a cold day is not an emergency. A child cutting themselves a super unique hairstyle right before you take them to a family dinner, maybe awkward to explain to your grandma why you ‘let’ them do it, but still not an emergency.
Our days may be easier if we are in control of what happens and when, but our children pay the price. Things might run more smoothly if you can force a child to sleep at a time that is convenient or run your days to a schedule, but the end does not justify the means. Children deserve to have choices about what happens to them. And if a child ‘thrives on structure’ then surely it doesn’t need to be forced? They can structure their own days in the ways that they need, or you can come up with a consensual plan together. No force necessary.
“No one, of any age, at any time, responds well to being controlled—or patronized. Control triggers one of two responses: rebellion or submission, accompanied by various less than healthy coping mechanisms. It might “work” in the short run, but it’s bound to backfire over time.” –Jennifer Lehr
What can we even hope to achieve by imposing our will on our children? They may comply in the moment, but what are they learning? Certainly not to trust and listen to their own bodies. If we truly want them to have the skills we are trying to instil then we must let them practice making their own decisions now, when they are safe and the consequences are small, and we are here to support them. Rather than waiting until they are grown and then thrust out into the world without anyone to dictate to them what they should be doing.
“There’s a big difference, after all, between a child who does something because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do and one who does it out of a sense of compulsion. Ensuring that children internalize our values isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own. And it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of having kids become independent thinkers.” -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
All children deserve respect, trust, autonomy, and freedom. Sometimes we don’t even realise we are not honoring these rights.
How do you know if you’re respecting your child’s freedom and autonomy? Some questions to ask yourself…
Will you change your mind?
Are you just trying out autonomy as a parenting ‘technique’? If your child chooses something that you’re uncomfortable with, will you declare they are incapable of reasonable decisions and consequently remove their freedom, opting for enforced rules instead?
Remember: Freedom and autonomy are not things for you to give or take away. They are your child’s rights. If you are concerned about something your child is doing, talk to them about it respectfully and let them know your concerns, feelings, and needs. Problem solve together like you would with anyone else! They are capable of this.
Are you overly invested in the outcome?
We all have certain qualities we would like our children to grow up with, but sometimes we can become overly invested in this image of a child we have in our head while missing the wonderful human that is right in front of us. If we’re too invested in who we think our child should be, we are highly likely to try and influence them in that direction.
Remember: Our children deserve to be unconditionally accepted for the unique people they are. Their choices, appearance, likes and dislikes, are 100% their own. They don’t need our approval or disapproval.
Are you subtly controlling?
Control can be so subtle. It’s so ingrained in our society that children are ours to mould and shape. We do it sometimes blatantly through rules, force, and punishments. Or indirectly through praise and rewards.
Remember: Praise and rewards have the same goal as punishments, to control behaviour. Plus, they’re damaging and don’t even work. Break the praise habit today!
“More worrisome was a study in which young children who were often praised by their parents for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were—again, just like kids who received tangible rewards. Every time they heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something the children had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. In this case, it was generosity that became merely a means to an end.” -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
Are you guiding because you want to help or control?
When you offer your opinion or advice, what is your motive? Do you have a genuine desire to help, or are you feeling you need to gain some control over the situation? Or maybe you want to ensure things are more convenient in the present moment?
Remember: Children will ask for advice if they need it! If you really just want to join in or help out then go ahead! But if you think you’re motive may be that you’re wanting to control the situation, holding back might be the best option. Or even just voicing your feelings without judgement.
Are you intervening for safety/health reasons?
When you do need to intervene, is it truly a health or safety issue? Sometimes it is and you need to stop something straight away. But sometimes we’re too quick to step in thinking that adults know best and children aren’t worthy of our trust, or capable of working things out on their own.
Remember: A child exercising their rights to decide when they eat or sleep, what they wear, how they spend their time, how high they can climb that tree, who they are friends with…not likely to be health or safety issues.
Are you too worried about the ‘rules’?
Are you too concerned with what other people might think? With how society thinks children should behave? Does that sometimes lead you to restrict your child’s autonomy?
Remember: Your child is more important than a stranger’s opinion. They are free to be themselves as long as they are not infringing on another’s rights.
How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
If another adult treated you the way you are treating your child, how would you feel? Restricted? Untrusted? ‘Like a child’?
Remember: Children are human beings and deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration as adults.
Are you building connection or comforting fears?
Is the way you are relating to your child building connection between you? Or are you worried about what ‘might’ happen, and responding based on your fears?
Remember: Connection is the key. When you are connected, children trust you and want to listen to you. If you parent with control you have no influence on what your children will do when you’re not around. Lifelong connections are more important than unfounded fears.
“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn’t permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We’re so worried about spoiling kids that we often end up overcontrolling them.” -Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
All children are equally deserving of respect, trust, autonomy, and freedom. A child’s behaviour does not make them less deserving of these things. Respect their freedom, and watch them shine.
This is such a complex issue, isnt’it? thanks for these inspiring words
I have a question: I usually really like your over arching theme of respectful parenting.I am just wondering what it looks like for babies and young toddlers? 2 and under. You mention routine, sleep habits etc. I feel I need to set these sleep habits or they would not make smart ones so that they could be happy to be free during the day. How does ‘respectful parenting’ look for these young young children ????
Hi Kaylee! I think definitely guide and help but ultimately you can’t (and don’t want to!) force them to sleep, or anything else.
So for example with my 1 year old, she will start looking sleepy and I will ask if she’s tired and wants to go to bed. Mostly she says yes and then I will help her to get to sleep by lying down with her and feeding. If she said no I wouldn’t force her. So she knows that sleep is not something to avoid because I’m not going to MAKE her, and therefore has a healthy view of sleepand is happy to go to bed when tired.
My 3 year old will just tell me when she wants to go to bed, the same as the older girls, and we lie with her while she goes to sleep 🙂
I’m really glad to read this as it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I would like to leave more and more things up to my kids, but I am coming up against a bit of a road block with my oldest. It seems every time he freely makes a choice, he disrespects others around him, or approaches it with the attitude “what can I get out of this?” For example, at bedtime, if he’s going to read until he’s sleepy and then turn out the light, what actually happens is that he reads until he’s bored with it and then comes and bothers my husband and I by intentionally acting up. Or he’ll say he can’t sleep because he’s just hungry and helps himself to a snack, but then finds more things that he needs before he can go to sleep and it’s endless. Sometimes to the point where I am ready to go to sleep but then can’t because if he’s still up he will sneak around the house getting into the chocolate or the crisps that are for daddy’s lunches. So I find it hard to encourage him to listen to his body when he only does so selectively (with bedtime, he will be bleary eyed and yawning and refuse to turn out the light… a while back we let this be but he would stay up until 10 and he’s so sensitive to sleep that it was less about natural consequences for him and more just misery all ’round). Beyond bedtime, he treats everything like a control battle- even when I ask him gently to help me with something, or remind him of a commitment, his response is clearly ready for a fight and everything becomes so tense. And finally, he decides when he will do things like chores/ jobs/ homework but when it comes time to do it he bargains and wants to change it or pretends he never said it- to where I am thinking of filming him saying whatever he commits to. Basically I’m sick of feeling like it’s s constant legal battle and not sure how to balance respectful parenting and autonomy in my children with their respect for their – chosen! – commitments and respect for others. Thanks for reading my rant and I look forward to hearing your response!!
Has he always had freedom in these choices or is it new?
What happens when he makes a choice you don’t agree with?
I’m wondering if he’s testing how much his freedom extends, and if he is really free to make the choices or if they’ll be taken away?
Ultimately you can’t control another person really, right? All you can do is look at how you respond yourself. Are you clearly letting him know your feelings and needs? Is there another reason for the behaviour? Is he getting enough connection time during the day?
I think the freedom has waxed and waned somewhat. That said, I feel like for many things, such as chores and homework (right now we school school) I have consistently approached it in a way that puts the decision of when and how they’ll get done in his court, and then we reevaluate after a while of seeing how it works. For other things we’ve tried having him take charge, but it simply hasn’t worked, and not in an “ooh this is new, I’ll test the limits” kind of way. He was reading until soooo late for a long while there, completely ignoring the fact that he was tired, that we realised it wasn’t a sustainable plan… we addressed it by talking to him about the range of sleep an 8-year-old needs and asking him to figure out a reasonable bed time based on when he has to get up, and he did that and calculated a bedtime… but then didn’t stick to it. and every so often staying up because you’re really into something makes perfect sense, but it was just a pattern.
In terms of what happens when he makes a choice I don’t agree with… I will say that I do think my husband tends to do the “it’s your choice… but if you make the ‘wrong’ choice I’ll make it for you,” which is entirely unhelpful as you say! I am trying to talk to him about that, but we are on slightly different wavelengths on that front. But I’m not sure how much of a factor that is in my relationship with my son, as he has more power struggles with me and fewer with my husband (who is also much quicker to remove privileges, etc.).
When he makes choices I don’t agree with I mostly grin and bear it as long as he’s being safe (for examples, I can’t stand video games, but he often chooses to play them in his free time, and I’m trying my best not to interfere and to acknowlege that he is generally pretty balanced with it).
Honestly, though, most of the choices he makes that I don’t agree with tend to be outright disrespectful or damaging to others (myself or his brother for example) or the general environment. How would you handle those instances?
For example, I don’t want to tell him how to play but… he finds it hard to play in a non-aggressive way (i.e. games that aren’t targeting or ‘getting’ someone – not just in a ‘tag’ kind of way), and he has trouble understanding and reacting appropriately when others don’t want to play – he will just keep playing the same thing in a one-sided way which just makes them targets. How do you respect his choice of play when it negatively impacts his peers? (I have talked with him ad nauseum about listening to others and respecting play mates… he can recite the right words but doesn’t actually do it).
Or with bedtime, half the time I wouldn’t actually mind if he’s up all night, but he begins to make it everyone else’s problem – at night because he messes with us during our very short amount of ‘mummy and daddy time’, and during the day because his emotional control is even worse when he’s tired! And I find it a bit of a health and safety concern if he’s up after we go to sleep.
Or we have a short bit of time before bed where he can do/get/take care of whatever he feels he needs, which is usually a snack. But sometimes in the past he has definitely not bothered with dinner because he knew he’d get to pick a more favorable snack afterwards. How do you deal with autonomy and food? (this is a doubly tricky one for me because I live in America, where everyone snacks all the time, but grew up in Europe where there was breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner and not much fuss, and those are two very different ways of eating).
Or it’s time to leave the house because we have an appointment and they’ve had advance notice of it and they’ve had a countdown? 5-minute warning, but getting out the door and in the car is still a nightmare and he will wind up his brother or hit him as he gets in the car or run rings around me trying to work things up, and it is clearly intentionally disruptive. We talk in calmer moments about what was going on, but so far I am not getting anywhere.
As you say, “ultimately you can’t control another person.” I really don’t want my role to be trying to control him!!! I just want things to be livable for everyone (as in not constantly arguing or treating things like a fight!), and right now, he’s having a hard time thinking beyond himself in terms of how his choices impact others.
As for connection time, I’m pretty sure he is not getting enough of it, but I am struggling with how to improve this… half the time he is not getting the connection time because he’s being antagonistic (which suggests he’s looking for attention and doesn’t care if it’s the negative type). Sometimes he will just go off and do his thing, which is fine. Sometimes, just as I’m about to go and be with him a neighbour comes over and off they go. And the time just evaporates. We have a weekly date, when my husband has a very early night, but even that seems to be about “how much can I get?” (how late can I stay up?/ how many treats can we have?/ how much can I mess around when it is finally bedtime… even though we have a sleepover in his bunk bed that night so I am literally going to sleep with him!)
So that’s a bit more detail. I am hoping to have some good time to really focus on this now that our summer break is coming up (not that you’d know it, as we got a whole pile of snow today!!!), so there will be fewer outside pressures.
Hey,I am having similar issues with my 7 year old twins-how are things going for you?any breakthroughs?
Hey, love reading your blog and it always makes me feel empowered among lack of understanding and negative comments from our surrounding people. We have always given our kids a lot of freedom in all areas except from bedtime. It hasn’t really been an issue since they are really active and tired in the evenings However, our 4 yr old has recently started saying she doesn’t want to go to bed even though it is obvious she is tired and asleep within 5 min lying in bed. Our 2yr old is more intune with his body and says when he is ready. My only concern is that she would stay up after we have gone to bed some times and if she would be safe…or maybe I should say for our safety lol…she is extremely curious and capable. We do speak to her about signs of tiredness, effect of lack of sleep, not just for her but for all of us!! We did decide to give up on bedtime when arriving in norway for the summer but after a few weeks we still make the decision!! Any words of encouragement to let go of this last thing!? Thanks Sofie
Hello and congrats for your blog, I love it. I try to give my 3 year-old child as much freedom as I can however there’s things I feel I have to enforce on him, things like brushing his teeth, he by himself would never do it and we know the consequences… or eating sugar, he would only eat sugary foods and although we don’t buy many sugary things there’s always something, honey or dried fruits for example and he would just eat that. Another issue is screen time, he would spend the mornings watching cartoons, I think for this one we have found a balance and this is when he asks for TV we do put it on but we negotiate 1 or 2 or 3 chapters (if they are short) and he seems to accept this nicely and that’s good but I wonder that’s not really freedom. How do you go about these 3 matters??
I think enabling children to make some decisions is good, as well as respecting them and giving them consideration. But I really don’t understand this concept of full autonomy.
I believe as parents, we do actually know more than our children and we know what is better for them than they do. So because I love them so much I think they need help making some decisions until they are mature enough. And making those decisions doesn’t mean I love and respect them less.
They also do need to fit into a family schedule or life will be a nightmare. The whole family cannot revolve around the whims of a 3 year old. I believe they need to understand that cooperation is a positive thing and we work together as a family in give and take.
I am concerned that this method will raise teenagers and adults who are accustomed to doing what ‘feels’ good and will do what they want without considering the impact on other people. How will they deal with authority in general? In the work place, in college, the law?
I think parents are around to guide and teach their children. Your health is important so we don’t eat whatever, whenever.
I don’t mean to disrespect people who follow this style, I just want to understand why you think children should be fully autonomous and why you think they are capable of making some of these decisions well, especially when so many things are addictive. (Foods, tv, video games) and will alter the mindset of their young brains.
I enjoy the blog, but I guess I don’t agree with everything. I hope you will be open to discussion.
Hi this was a great read and we do do a lot of what is in here however I do find it difficult with respect to certain things like screen time and shows and games he is wanting to play that I feel are inappropriate for his age range. We have spoken about why and discussed it with him (he is 6 by the way) however when given the capability he will still go on to those games and shows. It was also causing him to be more aggressive I feel especially towards his younger brother and I wasn’t liking some of the other behaviour her was doing since he had started watching/playing therefore we made the decision to take away that capability. He still has other games/shows. I honestly find it extremely hard at times to parent this way as I constant feel like we aren’t getting the same respect back that we have been providing to him and also find it difficult when he is in a full blown tantrum how to contain the behaviour and carnage from it.
How old are your children? As a mother to children that range in age from 9-17, I have experienced different approaches needed at different ages and individually. I don’t want to assume here, but I am guessing your children are all under age 14, is that correct?
I’d love to know if your opinions of freedom for children extend to your opinions on government and freedom… (not a troll post i am genuinely asking)
Do you think the amount of freedom you are giving your child is really preparing them to live in a society that is increasingly cutting away our freedoms?
Such a great article, and I really needed it today! I feel like I’ve made so many mistakes with my 5yr old daughter lately. How do I fix the praise situation I have created?
This article is full of buzz words but really out of touch with reality. While I agree wholly about respect then you can’t give 100% of autonomy to the kid. This example with cloths and sleep time were a bit bad ones. I’ve heard some people’s way of raising kids is “let them burn the fingers, then they’ll know next time that the oven is hot” – I feel if you let your kid go out in a summer dress in the middle of the Autumn and she’ll get lung infection then it’s a terrible and irresponsible way of parenting. Also in a summer holiday I let my kids to stay up late (basically until they want) but when I see them overtired and it’s late then I definitely decide this for them and say it’s time for bed.
Also I grew up in a way where I could do anything I wanted. I did do whatever I wanted with my hair (using hair example as the writer used it) so I decided to bleached my hair despite my Mum previously said please don’t do it it won’t look good, I still did it and it looked awful. Then I decided to get rid of my eyebrows. I’m still so sad I did this terrible thing as they never grew back. I didn’t like school so I dripped it. Never returned so the outcome is that I have no specific education, knowledge or know-how. Also a lot of my friends play an instrument and while only few of them have told me it was a hard time to learn it and that they have choose not to become musicians (tho still do not regret they are able to play an instrument) then the rest ones tell me how happy they are that their parents “forced” them to continue with music studies and today they are fabulous musicians. Also I can’t swim properly, play and sports well nor paint. I also did not have many coping skills. How many times in adulthood I have wished I could play some sports, swim really well, play piano etc just to realise anxiety and stress. My parents did not push me to do anything and that’s the outcome. Tho, I strongly agree that one can not teach/learn anything without respect and deep kindness and that’s my only take away from this article. Thank you for reading.
It sounds like the most enduring lesson you learned is that you cannot do things without force. What is stopping you from learning these things now? Nothing.
Unschoolers are always in charge of their education, with supportive parents, and therefore sure of their capabilities and intrinsically motivated.
This article is garbage and is a great way to raise entitled, selfish children that fail to contribute anything to society.
Sounds like you’ve never met a child parented this way. Why are you so afraid of trusting children?