Teaching Kids Responsibility by Increasing Freedom
Are you following the same rules your parents set without assessing if they’re right for your family?
While certainly kids need parental guidance, they also should be given the freedom to explore their world and make some choices for themselves.(GETTY IMAGES)
WHEN MY TWIN SONS WERE 7 years old, I saw a public service announcement on television that caught my attention. It encouraged parents to prepare kids to make healthy choices when they were teens by teaching children to make healthy decisions when they were younger, no matter what their age.
This made great sense to me. My job was to help my children learn how to responsibly manage increased freedom, and I needed to start by giving them greater freedom. I vowed to take this advice to heart.
First, I considered all the decisions and choices I was presently making for my kids. Were there any I could turn over to the boys to make for themselves? With this review I bumped into a sugar rule handed down to me from my mother. I had been following this rule since my own childhood, and both as a kid and an adult, I hated it. The rule? There would be no sweets until a well-balanced meal had been eaten; and only one sweet a day was allowed.
Should this rule be modified during Halloween and other sweet holidays? Do you know how many sweet holidays there are in a year? Almost every month there’s some sort of celebration that involves eating prodigious amounts of sugar. What about when Nana comes over for an unannounced, impromptu tea party that includes cupcakes and my children have already eaten their sweet treat at lunch? And when pancakes or waffles drizzled with syrup are served for breakfast, is that a meal or a sweet for the day?
I was now ready to implement my new strategy. Instead of being the sugar police, monitoring how much of it my children ate in a day, I was going to turn this responsibility over to them. After all, ultimately I wanted my children to mature into people who made good choices to support their own bodies. How would they learn what that meant if I was making choices for them rather than allowing them to (if they so chose) eat too much sugar and discover how lousy they felt? I wanted them to limit their sugar intake based on the feedback they got from their own bodies, rather than fear breaking one of “Mom’s rules.”
The process of teaching my children how to handle the additional personal responsibility of eating sugar was relatively simple. My courage was bolstered because I had just read a study proclaiming that children who were offered unlimited sweet treats and fruit and vegetables eventually chose to eat fruit and vegetables instead of sugar. The sugar binge was the first inclination of the children, but eventually the novelty of eating unlimited sugar wore off and better, more nutritious foods were chosen. Taking a leap of faith and with a large dose of hope, we began the great sugar experiment.
I told my sons that their dad and I no longer wanted to be in charge of how much sugar they ate. Instead we were asking them to tune into their own bodies to determine how much was enough and how much was too much. We cautioned them that there was a possibility the new policy of giving them total personal freedom to determine how much sugar they each ate could be tempered: If we observed either one needed more guidance, we would step in and help.
Amazingly, this experiment worked. There were only a few times when I asked one child, “Are you sure you want another piece of birthday cake?” or “Do you think one more handful of Nana’s M&M’s will feel good in your tummy right now?” On occasion, one son in particular would remind me that he was in charge of his sugar intake, not me.
They earned increased freedom by demonstrating responsible choices. If a child demonstrates through behavior and choices that he cannot handle greater freedom, parents need to step in and help the child learn.
I learned two important lessons from this experiment. First, when I was willing to give my children more control and freedom to make choices for themselves, they each experienced the consequences of their choices. Each learned how to make good choices, and learned self-discipline skills to avoid making poor choices.
When they became teens and were experimenting and tempted with cigarettes, alcohol and more dangerous substances, each child used his own body awareness and feelings to decide whether to go further down that unhealthy path or not. Simply knowing that using or abusing these substances was illegal and against his parents’ wishes may have contributed to each child’s decision to say, “No.” But the stronger, more important deterrent was knowing how their bodies felt when they made these unhealthy choices. It turned out the PSA advice was wise and accurate. The key to helping my children learn how to make healthy decisions was teaching them how to do so beginning well before they were adolescents.
[Read: Picking Your Battles.]
I also learned that the first step to becoming a peaceful parent is to become a conscious parent. How many rules did I create and ask my children to follow simply because these were the rules I had grown up with? Did I like these rules? Did I agree with them? Just because my parents had rules that worked for them, did I want to keep following these same rules? Taking some time to consider, review and evaluate the rules I was setting for my children made me a conscious parent – and a better parent.