Thursday, July 21, 2011

Freedom Doesn't Always Look Pretty

My children have a lot of freedom. They are free to make their own choices about lots of things like food, television, sleep, bathing, helping around the house. This makes a lot of people nervous. I have had more than a few people tell me, That's great if it works for you, but it wouldn't work for my kids. My kids wouldn't be able to regulate themselves.

I understand it's difficult to imagine what it looks like when you allow children this kind of control over their own lives. We grow up being told that children are incapable of making good decisions. It's hard to let that idea go. I was doubtful about it when I first read the suggestion, not long ago. But as we read more about radical unschooling, my husband and I decided we could and wanted to trust our children.

About a year and a half later, I can definitely report that the freedom is "working" for us. My kids are happy and healthy and fun, and we have wonderful relationships with each other. That doesn't mean it's always easy or that it always looks pretty, though. Some days the kids make choices that seem to be extreme and, if taken out of context, would probably make us look like "bad" parents.

So what does freedom look like in our house?

Louise's candy masterpiece.
Food freedom looks like eating broccoli and pickles at midnight. It looks like eating cookies and popsicles for breakfast. It looks like taking one bite of a (usually beloved) marshmallow and throwing out the rest because it's too sweet at that moment. It looks like eating six packets of fruit snacks in twenty minutes. It looks like opening 16 packages of Fun Dip all at once and using the dip sticks made of sugar to make the Empire State Building (instead of eating them) while watching James and the Giant Peach.

Most often, food freedom looks like my kids eating lots of different things, some of which would be considered healthy, and some not.

Media freedom looks like watching all 90 episodes of Blue's Clues, streaming on Netflix, in the span of a few weeks. It looks like watching the same 3-minute scene of Madagascar 15 times in a row because it makes us laugh. It also looks like walking away from a favorite movie to help little brother tie a cape on so he can "fly" off the couch onto the beanbag chairs. It looks like not asking to turn on the television all day. It looks like coming in from outside on a beautiful day to watch a movie, or turning it off in favor of going outside in the rain. It looks like going camping for four days and never asking about the television once. It looks like watching a show on a portable DVD player on a 10-minute drive. It looks like two televisions on right next to each other in the living room, and the kids in the bedroom looking at books.

Mostly, it looks like spending some time watching a screen each day, and spending some time on other activities.

Freedom looks like a two year old napping from 9 pm to midnight, and then being awake until 3 am, then sleeping until noon (not straight though, mind you). It looks like falling asleep on the living room floor in the middle of playing. It looks the whole family sleeping in one big bed, or one or more of us choosing to sleep elsewhere (like camping out in the living room). It looks like not brushing curly hair for two months, not taking a bath for two weeks. Or it looks like taking three baths in one day. It looks like not being forced to say please and thank you and you're welcome and sorry but still saying those things many times each day. It looks like two little kids getting excited about sweeping the kitchen floor, or the same ones declining to help pick up the contents of a bag of chips spilled on the carpet.

Freedom looks like my kids having access to lots of different things, and choosing how to best meet their needs, with help and support from me and my husband.

The important thing is, it doesn't mean that the freedom is "not working" on days when they sit on the couch and watch television, eating only chips, and stay up until 2 am. It doesn't mean the freedom is only "working" on days when they make choices according to some adult standard of healthy and they are very polite and helpful. It doesn't mean they "regulate themselves" as they would otherwise be regulated by adults.

We don't give them the freedom expecting that they will choose as we would choose. We give them the freedom so they don't have to. We give them the freedom because we trust them and want them to grow up trusting themselves.


Disclaimer: I'm not trying to convince anyone to live this way. I'm just saying it's possible. I'm saying that children are worthy of our trust, and capable of making decisions on how to act and spend their time. I'm saying you can't tell if the freedom is "working" if you judge by what happens in one day or one week. And it will never "work" if you expect that, if given the freedom, the kids will eventually realize that your preferences are best, and they will behave exactly how you want them to.

Check out a follow-up to this post... To Those Who Call Me an Unparent.