How much freedom does a child need?
This one is always a tough one to answer. Perhaps, Matt Munro says it all in the lyrics of the song, Born Free…
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
While I love to see my children free of all shackles to grow and bloom as their dreams dictate, to fly free as the wind blows, we still need to understand the breeze is created by the laws of physics, by rules laid out by a greater power than us.
My sons always talk of freedom in the sense of space to do what they like, make robots, create animations, play the piano, read a Harry Potter for the one thousandth time without being reprimanded! They like to stay at home and do things. They say they need freedom of mind and thought. So, when I told them, turn by turn, they were too young to read an Asimov at thirteen, they both rebelled. They read the books by borrowing from the library. I have learnt to let them read and explore what they like as long as it is within the bounds of decency. Luckily, for me, my sons are like grand dads when it comes to rules and decency. They lay the laws for themselves and the rest of the world. They do not like to wander into the darker zones of internet or play gory games or go out late at night to party, drink and drug. Perhaps, I am plain lucky! Or, did they become my great grand dads because they grew up within certain frameworks of rules and ideals?
Most children, like grown ups, have different concepts of freedom. My elder son’s best friend in the eighth grade needed the freedom to drink as much coke as possible and eat as many chocolates as he could lay his hands on behind his mother’s back. Some need freedom of movement, some of thought and some for things that parents frown on or fear. So, how do parents define how much freedom and what kind of freedom?
I remember, when my son’s school started using internet extensively, caregivers were called in to be educated about parental controls, rules were suggested for internet surfing and how to monitor the child while he explored the internet. While we agreed on the need for filters, a friend of mine and I felt the school was creating an atmosphere of mistrust between the child and his parents. Whereas the school felt they were creating awareness among parents. The bottom-line was all of us wanted the best for the children.
Trust develops with the ability of the child to work within a framework. Children need structures and rules. It gives them a sense of security and helps them develop their capacity to think. The school was trying to create a framework. We as mothers felt the framework was taking on the dimensions of a jail where the parents were warders and the children the prisoners. On the other hand, there are children who wander into the negative side of freedom. They will not study, keep going out and wander into areas of Internet and social media that can get them into trouble. They might even try alcohol, drugs and violate their own or others’ bodies out of curiosity and boredom. So, how do we make sure our kids do not wander into these dark forbidden areas that can wreck their lives?
I had a neighbor whose son got involved with people who were into drug trafficking, though he himself was innocent. This happened in China. The parents had to leave the country with their son who was thrown out of school. Some other expat kids were deported along with parents for abusing the social media to spread false stories about a teacher in another country. They were doing it in fun but it was distressing for the staff. The children were not educated to be within limits. Again the families were deported after the school expelled the children. Why does this happen to only some kids and not to others?
Is it that the children were born evil or is it that the parents missed out on something? Perhaps, the children needed a little less freedom than what the parents gave them. Perhaps, they needed parents who prioritized their children’s needs over their desires. Perhaps the youngsters could have done with a little more guidance. Perhaps, they needed rules. Sometimes we think giving financial support is the most important thing for kids. While money does pay the bills, keeps the child in school, well clothed, well fed, it does not teach the youngster manners or values. However, a clear set of dos and don’ts practiced by parents themselves can do the trick along with plenty of love.
A child has to learn to distinguish right from wrong.
Sometimes, one needs to be firm and stick to the rules. I often see parents buy their children toys or gifts to avoid conflict. One mother told me that every time she bought a birthday present for another child, she had to buy one for hers! It reminded me of an incident where my four year son howled for a toy in a mall and refused to move. People turned and looked. It was embarrassing but I was meaner than my friend. I ignored his demand and waited till he calmed down and walked home with me. I had been embarrassed but I won a battle. My child learnt that everything could not be had for asking.
An early access to excess wealth and over indulgence can be as bad for the development of a child as the inability of the parent to foot bills to meet basic needs of a child. However, there is an age for everything. If you force rules on a baby who does not understand, the disciplining will be pointless and abusive. Recently, I was visiting some relatives in India. They had a young toddler — all of two and a half or three years old. He had just started play school. Everyday when his mother dropped him to school, he cried. The staff asked her to wait for him whereas her friends told her to leave and let him be. She asked me what would be the right thing to do.
I told her two stories. The first one was about my younger one. When he started his playgroup in China, he would start crying minutes after I left him in class. I was told to hide in the school office for a month. To me the answer was obvious. The child’s sense of security was tied to my presence and he needed the reassurance that he would be safe in the school. Eventually, he adjusted and I could just drop him off. And he survived his days with happiness and friendships.
The second story was about my elder son. The first day I took him to the Tumble Tots play school when he was two years and four months, he reiterated, “Mama outside, I inside.” I was allowed to sit in for a week but my son did not need me to be with him. I had been waiting outside for a couple of hours, when an exhausted looking assistant opened the door to let the kids out. She called me aside to tell me my son had been to the toilet seven times… We were both concerned!
On the way back home, I asked my son why he went so frequently to the toilet.
He perked up, “Mamma, they have blue water coming out of the flush. At home why don’t we have blue water?” So, I bought toilet blues and we had blue water in the flush. I showed and explained the process to him and he stopped visiting the bathroom seven times in two and a half hours. I was happy that my son was confident and independent enough to be in school on his own. But he had known the trainers from eighteen months of age as he had been attending their playgroup from that age and really enjoyed it. So, play school became just an extension of the playgroup.
For my younger son, it was a brand new environment in China and a new school. Each child faced different circumstances and each child reacted differently. It does not do to compare their reactions and ignore their needs.
A child needs emotional grounding to be given freedom. And this emotional grounding is created by responsible parenting. If a child feels reassured that his parents care for him and will be there, he will himself start giving a framework to his sense of freedom. He will not react in rebellion by doing or exploring the negatives of social interactions, media, drugs or alcohol. If you can spare the time to be there for your child and listen to him, chances are he will listen to you and grow up to be a man devoid of chains and yet living within a framework.
After all the wind flows and the grass grows because of rules laid by the laws of nature… and even animals need frameworks laid by their kind to survive…