Freedom (n.): The power to control your own life by being able to control your own actions or emotions.
Responsibility (n.): Being able to choose for oneself between right and wrong.
At some point, most of us have told our child, “I’ll let you have more freedom once you show me you’re responsible enough.” This approach is convenient for us, and frees us from the stress of watching a child make mistakes. But, what does it offer children? Nothing of value; nothing that will help them become independent or develop a moral compass.
Here’s an inconvenient truth: Children’s growth happens outside our comfort zone, and that’s where we have to go if we want to raise children who can handle freedom with responsibility.
The best way to explain the dance of freedom and responsibility is probably through a real-life example.
My eight-year-old son asked if he could do research online to learn more about his LEGO motors and sensors for a vehicle he wanted to build. In our home, online searches are reserved for when we’ve exhausted all other resources: books, magazines, experts, etc. But since we were on lockdown and libraries were closed, we pulled out the computer. Together we figured out some search terms and found a video that seemed to hold potential.
The video had pictures and text, so I listened to my son read aloud to make sure he was understanding the information. I then left him on the couch watching the video and got up to make lunch. A while later I heard him announce that the video was over, and he said there was another LEGO video he thought would be helpful. I told him he had the freedom to decide if it would help his research, and by the time lunch was ready he’d watched yet another video.
I peeked at the screen on a couple of occasions; the videos he chose, while appropriate for his age and interests, were purely entertaining and had nothing to do with his original search. I was irritated that he’d gone off-course so quickly and wanted to tell him to turn off the computer, but I breathed through my discomfort, cursed YouTube, and went back to making lunch.
Later, while we ate, he told me about the videos. They were certainly amusing, but when I asked him if he’d gotten any useful information for his project, he sheepishly smiled and said no. This was a great opportunity to talk about the challenges of the Internet, and how hard it is for all of us to navigate it without getting lost down a rabbit hole. After we ate, we did another search with more specific terms. This time, he evaluated videos by reading their descriptions and eventually found the information he needed to finish his project.
That night at dinner, my husband asked him if he wanted to share something interesting he’d learned that day. My son told him: “I learned that the internet is like a giant rabbit hole. You start in one place and before you know it, you’re someplace else that has nothing to do with where you started or what you were looking for.”
Bingo, newfound awareness.
Let’s look at the four steps for raising our children to be responsible:
- Not too little, not too much: Find that freedom sweet spot where your child can recover and learn from low-stakes goof-ups. Allowing freedom DOES NOT mean abandoning adult judgement and putting your child in undue physical or mental danger.
- Let them fail: This is the scary part, which stops parents from supporting freedom and prevents children from developing responsibility. I urge you to read one of my all-time favorite books, The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. You will never look at failure – or your parenting role – the same way again.
- Debrief with interest: After the experience, ask questions that encourage critical thinking: What happened? Why do you think that happened? How did you feel about it? What worked well? What would you do differently next time? And when relevant, share stories from your own experiences, so your child feels compassion and sees learning as a lifelong journey.
- Let them try again: Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child who has extended his independence by acquiring new powers, can only develop normally if left free to exert those powers. The child develops by the exercise of that independence which he has gained.” (emphasis mine) In other words, you need to let them try again.
But this time, they won’t go in blindly. Thanks to you, they’ll have the wisdom of experience on their side.