Among the many difficult issues for parents is the determination of how much freedom to give their children to make their own decisions. The amount of responsibility that children can reasonably assume for their decisions varies with their age, their capacity to manage their behaviors and their trustworthiness – among other factors. Are there reasonable guidelines for parents to consider?
There are many misconceptions about parental control of decision-making by children. For instance, a popular assumption of some persons is that parents who give their children a lot of freedom to manage themselves will have children who get into trouble early in their lives, such as misusing alcohol, not striving in school and not working to their capacity.
What works best as children progress through childhood into adulthood? Is there a balance between parental control and children taking responsibility for their own actions? Are there also considerations that apply to children raised on the farm that differ from children who do not have an agricultural background?
Last weekend I had a learning experience while allowing two granddaughters (ages 2 and 4) to make their choices in a grocery store. As we entered the store, they spied two child-sized shopping carts; of course each had to have her own cart.
Both took off racing down the first aisle, laughing loudly with delight while I was jogging after them. “Slow down,” I commanded to no avail.
Every adult shopper who witnessed the boisterous melee smiled and commented that I was either brave or foolish to bring two energetic little girls to the store by myself. I responded with something like, “You are probably right, we’ll see if we get through the store without an accident.”
First, we found the milk and juice section, and each girl knew exactly what she wanted. We got past the candy section without stopping until one granddaughter proclaimed loudly enough for everyone in the store to hear, “Mommy gives us candy if we go potty in the toilet.”
Yup, we turned around and went back to the candy section. This time I got sympathy from some adult observers, who voiced things like, “Been there, done that.”
Each granddaughter had to have a packet of cheese, a loaf of bread, and a breakfast cereal of her choice. Then, as we were heading to the egg section, my younger granddaughter tipped over her shopping cart, because both were racing to get to where we had seen the eggs.
I set the cart upright and I told the girls they had to pick things up because they caused the wreck. Nothing was broken; I had strategically planned to stock up on eggs last. I showed both girls how to check the egg cartons to see if any eggs were cracked. They could spot the cracked ones better than me; we found two intact cartons. This time we walked to the checkout counter.
When we arrived back home the girls ran to find Grandma Marno (Marilyn) to announce they bought all the groceries and to make sure she knew, “We got candy so you can give us candy” … well, you know what they were referring to.
I looked up the latest child discipline research on the internet and in textbooks to see if what I did was recommended as sound parenting. Nearly everything I found agreed with practices that Marilyn and I attempted to apply with our children and now with our grandchildren.
The common advice is: Let children make their own decisions and be responsible for the consequences, to the extent that their behaviors are under their control. There are times when children from toddlers through teenagers, and even adults, can’t be in control, such as when the kids are in school or overpowered by someone else (e.g., a bully).
Children practice making decisions. They need to try out managing themselves so they learn their capacities and limitations. They are more apt to come back to parents for feedback who give them opportunities to make their own choices than to look to parents who require adherence to parental expectations.
Offering to be available to consult gives children a sense that there is backup support if needed, as they test out their abilities to make good decisions. Only when children’s choices are almost certain to harm them or others, should parents step in. Even in those situations, the parents should explain the possible consequences initially and follow-up with strictures when the children clearly are endangering themselves or others.
Research reports say kids raised on the farm tend to be self-reliant. Expectations about taking care of themselves and handling farm animals and equipment help them to develop good judgment.
Other places where children grow up also can be supportive learning environments if they encourage children to experiment for themselves, with backup as necessary. Children usually treat their own offspring when they become parents like they were treated while growing up.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org