I Want My Children to be Free
In the days of the old republic, we talked of what it meant to be free. We knew what slavery really looked like: a slave must not be allowed to read, must not be allowed to think, must not be allowed to reflect. He must not rule any aspect of his own life, lest he get a taste of self-government and be ruined as a slave. The free citizen, on the other hand, must be able to rule himself. He must be educated, he must be engaged, he must be motivated. The free citizen does not wait to be told what to do, but rouses himself to action at the appropriate time. On the other hand, he is ready to follow when apt leadership presents itself. He does what is reasonable, because he is a man of reason.
I sometimes wonder what my parenting philosophy really is, if I even have one, or if I’m just making it up as I go along. I have some ideas from attachment parenting, and some from William Glasser’s Choice Theory, and some from my own background, I suppose. But why have I chosen the particular leanings that I have? Upon reflection, I see that all is not as haphazard as it might seem. Ultimately, I want my children to be free.
First, when they were being born, I steeped myself in the literature of attachment parenting, Dr. Sears and all. I birthed them at home, going on the black market to procure a midwife. I breastfed them till they were each 2 years old. I carried them around in a sling. I slept with them just next to me at night. I did these things for two reasons: 1) attachment parenting is far, far easier on a parent, or at least, it was in my case. I got plenty of sleep, had free hands to do things with even while carrying my baby, and hardly ever washed a bottle. As a working mom, I get extra time with them at night. But primarily, 2) I understood what psychologists simply rediscovered from the type of parenting adhered to by most parents throughout most of human history in most every world culture: children who feel safe and secure when they are very little will be ready to take on the world as they grow. They’ve got nothing to fear, because deep within themselves, they know that they are loved and cared for. And I’ll add one more, which is simply an extension of the second point, 3) God does love and care for us; we are in some mysterious but foundational sense truly safe because of His divine presence. Attachment parenting powerfully reflects the deepest Reality.
As my two boys grew, I began to draw from the type of counseling that I myself had benefitted from: William Glasser’s Choice Theory or “Responsibility Therapy”. This approach sees punishment as largely a natural occurrence, that is, consequences of bad actions are punishment enough. I am by no means perfectly consistent on this point, but ultimately I reject the notion that arbitrary consequences serve much helpful purpose in bringing about genuine discipline in a person. Oh, and children are people, too.
The point of discipline is not, in fact, justice, or even blind obedience. Rather, to be disciplined is to be well-trained. A disciple is one who follows. So putting the plates down low so that my boys could set the table counts as discipline. Working together to make the meal and clean up afterwards counts as discipline. Reading something deeply human and discussing it together counts as discipline. Telling my boys that they are the delight of my life counts as discipline. I see their shining faces smiling back at me, reflecting that love back into my heart. I am training them up in love, in thoughtfulness, and in an ordered existence.
I am also honest with my children, in such a way that some would say I risk making myself weak in their eyes. Now that they are teenagers I often admit when I am puzzled as to what to do or say in a situation. I ask them to think it through with me. What I have found when I have had the patience to do this well is that they are quite capable of stepping outside of themselves and rationally assessing a situation. They are less likely to be on the defensive and more likely to take responsibility for themselves when I do this. We discuss openly that we are all flawed people, struggling towards the best way to live together in peace.
My boys are probably fairly typical. They fight over the game console. They don’t always want to do their chores. They ‘forget’ a lot. Sometimes we get emotional. Sometimes we raise our voices.
But I’ll tell you what they’re not. They’re not slavish.
They don’t feel much pressure to conform to their schoolmates or meaningless trends. They are, in most instances, extremely kind. This is probably why they are frequently invited on weeks-long family vacations or camping trips with friends, whose parents thank me for rearing sons who are sweet to their smaller children. Like all families, we drive each other crazy sometimes, but I want to be near my children, and so do other people. They are striking out on their own when it comes to their education, the cultivation of hobbies, and their beliefs and interests. They tell me what they want out of school and how they can best get it, and we work together to make that happen. This year, my older son will spend half his time studying independently, and half at school. Next year, my younger son is considering private school in the hopes of less distraction; we’re investigating options now. They can go to college if they want to, or not; we’re confident that they’ll have a great life either way. They think hard about the things they come across, whether in a sermon, a book, or in class. They don’t simply parrot my own opinions back to me, and I never preach. We talk together like rational people. Both of these boys are old enough to have been bar mitzvah’d, after all.
My goal as a parent isn’t to create little robotic reflections of myself. Rather, I want to enjoy and even glory in the surprising and delightful unfolding of two new human beings: young men with their own personalities, their own thoughts, their own goals. Yes, a parent shapes her children. But let us shape our children with the truth, fitly spoken. Let us shape them into men and women, citizens, full persons, dignified and free.