How much freedom do I give my child?
Our staff will never let me forget that I once made this statement in a sermon on parenting, “If you, as a 30-year-old, can’t get a two-year-old to wear a coat, you need to give that kid to a good home.” That statement was obviously intended to be massively sarcastic, but I think it shocked some people. It gets to the heart of a very key issue in parenting: How much freedom do you give your children as they grow?
If you have a child that is over one, you know that one day you just realize, my child is manipulating me. When I give them the blue cup they cry for the red one. As soon as I switch, they start begging for the blue one again. When I go to put their coat on them, they don’t want it. When you ask them to put something away, they refuse. You ask them what they would like for breakfast and they say one thing and change their mind while you are making it. But then the issues get bigger. Do you let them have social media in 3rd grade when everyone else is starting to use it? If you don’t, they are going to be very upset with you. Are you damaging the relationship? At age 16 something happens that massively increases their freedom to make their own choices - they start driving! At that point, you are going to want to know that you can trust their hearts and their decision-making.
One of the reasons that parents struggle with how much freedom to give their children is because they are greatly concerned about being their friend right from the start. They don’t want to upset the child by forcing their will in a situation. They take the same skills they used in parenting an infant into the rest of the process - “Anything I can do to keep them from crying, I’ll do it.” This is a misunderstanding of what your child really needs. Take a look at the freedom funnel above.
This chart runs completely contrary to what culture will tell you about how to raise a child. But I would humbly make the case, culture is not exactly winning at raising children right now. What you see in the chart above is that there are very few freedoms when a child is young. For the parent’s role in that initial stage, I used the word “dictator.” That may seem way too strong, but I used it to drive home the point. You are totally in charge at this point. You don’t ask them if they want to wear a coat. You don’t ask them if they want to go into their classroom at church. You don’t ask them what they want to eat. If you do ask them what they want to eat as they near the top of this age category, it might be, “Do you want eggs or oatmeal.” Once they choose they will live with their choice. There won’t be further negotiations. At this point in your relationship with your child you are establishing authority, not seeking to be their best friend. And guess what, that’s what they need at that point.
At the next stage, which runs basically through elementary and early middle school, your goal is to develop responsibility. On the left side of the chart where it says “age,” you could also put the word “responsibility.” In other words, freedoms expand as they get older, but the main reason freedoms would expand is that you see that they are taking more and more responsibility for their own actions. Just because you gave a certain freedom to one child at a certain age, it doesn’t mean your next child should get that same freedom at the same age. The mark for your kids should be the character you are looking for, not simply an age. At this stage, there is still a very great sense that you are in charge. Your role is similar to a teacher. A good teacher spends most of their time instilling important lessons in the child, not just trying to rein in the class. Hopefully, authority has been established, so that learning can take center stage. This is where training the heart through constant conversations is so important (See “Use it or Lose it: Parenting for long-term results”). However, the teacher still must be a disciplinarian. There are times when the teacher must take away recess, separate students who are misbehaving or assign extra work. There are consequences for not behaving correctly, but at this point, the behavior expectations are extremely clear. Kids at this stage are expected to have chores that they should do without having to be reminded. They should be processing issues they face through basic biblical principles. You should be able to trust that they are a joy to other people and not a problem.
That sets them up for the next stage where they are beginning to take a lot of responsibility for themselves and they are often in situations where you do not get to observe them. They are on a sports team where you do not see the practices and the bus trips and the locker room. They are in late middle school and high school, where they have more freedoms than they had in elementary school. They sit with whomever they choose during lunch. They get dropped off for youth group. And of course, during this stage, they start driving. This is the stage where you start to prepare them for total independence. They learn to get a job. They learn how to responsibly handle social media. They learn how to navigate social situations where others are not doing the right thing. Most importantly, they learn how to become leaders. When you raise them to be leaders, you don’t have to worry about what they are following. Your role at this point is like a Coach. You are not on the field with them. You are sending them out onto the playing field every day to run the plays. You are trusting that you have poured into them what they need to recognize situations and respond correctly. After every game, you can review the film and talk about how things could have gone better. If things are falling apart in the game, you can call a timeout or you could bench them. You still have authority. Their life is still 100% sponsored by you. You aren’t required to sponsor things you don’t agree with. If your child is using their cell phone in a way that is terribly irresponsible, you can take it away! However, if the early stages go as they should, drastic measures shouldn’t be required that often. This is mostly a stage of constant conversations about the right ways to think, the right ways to relate to certain situations, what it looks like to be a difference-maker for Jesus, and what it looks like to take responsibility for themselves. At this stage, your relationship with your child will start to feel more like a friendship. But you have not surrendered your authority yet. Think about how close so many athletes are to their high school and college coaches, even though at times the coach had to be tough on them.
The last stage is launch. That can be a different age for different children. One child might leave high school and go straight into the military. That child is instantly dealing with “bosses” on his own, making decisions about signing up for benefits, managing their own income, and hopefully almost all of their own expenses. Another child may go to college and still be greatly dependent upon their parents financially. They may not have total freedom yet, because their decisions still greatly affect the parents. However, their freedoms will be greatly expanded over what they experienced in high school. If the other stages have gone well, you should be very confident about their walk with Christ and their decision-making. Once they have launched out, the parent finally moves into the friend role. You can no longer exercise authority over them, but you are there for them any time they need to talk.
But what happens if you flip it? What happens if you start out giving lots of choices and being their friend? What typically happens is the child becomes a behavior problem as they go through the preschool years. As the child enters elementary school, the parents will always side with the child when teachers mention problems with their behavior. Often, prescription options are pursued to help the behavior. And as the child becomes a teen, the parents begin to see that their heart is not right, their choices can’t be trusted, and the consequences for their behavior could be life-altering (pregnancy, jail, failure in school, addiction), they begin to do everything they can do to crack down. That typically does not go well because they innately know that this is the stage where they should have more freedom, not less. Does it always happen that way? No, sometimes the structure that other people put in their lives reins them in. Maybe it will be great teachers or a coach or a youth leader. Does following the funnel always produce God-loving, responsible leaders? No, there are a million factors that can influence their direction. Do I believe that following the funnel is biblical and will give you the best chance to raise God-loving, responsible leaders? Yes I do!
Some of you are reading this and you feel that you already have gone about it the opposite way. As your child has gotten older, it has become obvious that they are more willful than when they were younger, and you can’t trust the decisions they make on their own. What do you do? First of all, focus on Jesus. This whole process presupposes that you have had a ton of spiritual conversations with them as they grew up and they came to fully understand what it means to give their lives to Jesus and did so. If your child is entering the teen years and doesn’t seem to have God-like desires in their heart, do not assume that they really “got it” when they prayed a prayer in 3rd grade at VBS. We are often so excited when a kid wants to make a “decision” that we fail to drill down on why they wanted to make the decision or to what extent they understood what it means. Second, have an honest conversation and tell them that you feel that you didn’t give them the structure and discipline they needed when they were young, but at this point, you need them to want the right things in order for you to help them. Ask them where they want to be in a few years. Ask them who they look up to. Ask them if the path they are on leads there. Asking good questions to make them weigh their choices and direction is the best way to help them change. You may still need to enforce consequences. You aren’t required to pay for a cell phone for them. You aren’t required to pay for car insurance. You aren’t required to support bad decisions. Third, love them and pray for them. Keep your temper under control. I know that almost grown children can push your buttons, but make sure they know no matter what consequences you are enforcing, they know that you love them.