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Freedom, how much is too much?

Cameron Dubin, Aug 2017
reprinted with permission from Cam and Jaiden's Excellent Adventure

There's a growing trend of allowing children complete and utter freedom in every aspect of their lives; Sadly the parents who pr actice this ideology often preach this rather loudly which seemingly aims to do nothing more than guilt those parents who don't.

So, should children be totally free? Free to eat what they like whenever they like, play video games for as long as they like, sleep whenever they like and wear what they like when they like? Well, I say no.

Here's the thing. Children and adults are different not just because of age or size, but because of the way our brains develop. The prefrontal cortex of a child's brain is underdeveloped compared to that of a mature adult, which is why children (generally) lack the ability to plan long term, it's why they lack impulse control and often make poor decisions, it also serves as an explanation as to why they struggle with seemingly simple things, like sharing or emotion regulation. Because of this, it makes children more prone to making bad decisions, regardless of them knowing the decisions are not, or irrespective of long term consequences on their physical or mental health. Put simply, they cannot control it. Allowing them free reign does not allow their brain to develop any faster.

If a child wants to wear their undies and no shoes outside on a 0 degree winters morning because they say they don't feel cold, should you let them? Well, clearly not. Children are far more at risk to things like frostbite, hypothermia or heatstroke than adults because their bodies are smaller and less able to regulate their temperature. Whilst a child may not 'feel' the heat or cold, the fact remains they are just as, if not more prone to complications than an adult.
Instead of total freedom or total control, I spend the time to explain the reasoning behind needing to wear weather appropriate clothing, spend the time to educate them instead of just assuming that they naturally know what's in their best interests. I let Jaiden choose his clothing and have done for a long time, but when the temperature drops to single digits and he's still running around in a shirt and shorts, I intervene. There's a difference between respectful parenting and neglectful parenting. On the flip side, if your child is just wearing clothes that don't match, then I see no need to intervene. Hell, I had months on end of Jaiden wearing nothing but gumboots in the middle of summer because we struggled to find shoes that were comfortable for him, he was happy, he was safe, he copped all kinds of strange looks as did I, but I let it go.

Screen time is also one where people's opinions vary greatly. There was a picture circulating a few weeks ago that showed a seemingly snooty parent saying "Oh I limit my kids screen time to 45 minutes a day", the other person responded "Oh so what other learning opportunities do you limit?" - Let's be real, this is like saying that it's ok for children to read pornographic magazines because reading is good for children. There's a difference between using screen time to learn or explore a new concept and sitting there playing Call of Duty for 15 hours straight 7 days a week. For many people extended periods of video games dramatically change our children's behaviour and demeanour. For us, if Jaiden spends more than several hours straight playing intensive games, he becomes incredibly anxious, very frustrated and generally very irritable; which has resulted in several broken keyboards and mice, his night terrors return and he spends his days totally isolating himself refusing to engage in anything.
On the occasions where I had health issues that meant he did have free reign, he would quite literally not move from his chair until he was about to wet or soil himself. He didn't move for food nor water, on several occasions he told me he was dizzy, obviously due to hunger and/or thirst.

Instead of just setting blanket limits, we discuss how his moods change and over time he's become more aware of it so when I do say "Are you getting a little bit frustrated? Maybe it's time to hop off that game for a while or find something else to do? How about you watch something on YouTube or come and help me?" This is often met with major aggression, but once he settles I then take the time to sit down with him and discuss his emotions with him, we discuss how it affects him and over time he's learned to understand that often he needs a break from gaming, not for my benefit, but for his. He is free to investigate, research or write using his computer at any time, however we do have limits when his gaming is negatively impacting him.
Our children are all different, some children will self-regulate their gaming or screen time from a young age, whilst others take many years to do this, or still cannot do this as adults. Some children may not have their behaviour affected in anyway by having exposure to video games, but this is not the case for all. This is something that varies from child to child, our children are all different so there is no 1 size fits all standard here. So if y'all can stop trying to persecute those of us who do need to impose some boundaries for our children's wellbeing, that'd be swell.

Sleep is another one I get frustrated with; the idea we should just let our kids sleep whenever they want. Jaiden is a child who struggles terribly if he is sleep deprived, he's not a child who will sleep in after a late night, nor (until very recently) has he ever accepted he is tired and go to bed early or have a daytime nap. When he is over tired he becomes hyper-emotional, hyperactive and incredibly aggressive and easily agitated. Instead of telling him to go to bed "because I said so", I've always explained that he wakes up super early which then makes him tired and affects how happy he is throughout the day. Over time he's learned how to recognise he is tired and now has said on occasion "Oh I am so tired, I think I need to go to bed". It's taken 5 1/2 years for him to get to this point, has he worked this out all on his own? No, through guidance he's learned to identify the signs that he is tired and react accordingly. Sure, if he had free reign he may have eventually worked it out on his own, but through guidance and explaining things there's been massive progress in his self awareness without the stresses that a sleep deprived ASD child often brings. If you child sleeps till 11am after a late night and you have no reason to get them up any earlier, good for you. But please remember you don't represent everybody.

'Food freedom' is another one that REALLY grinds my gears. If you set good examples and your children are only exposed to healthy foods and eating habits; then yes, allowing free reign is fine. But if you're a family who always has chocolate and bottles of coke in the fridge, what happens if your child only wants to eat chocolate and drink coke for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Do you really think that allowing free reign is going to teach them healthy eating habits? Spending the time to discuss healthy eating habits and the effects of bad choices is far more important than letting them eat whatever they like and just hoping that they'll make the right decisions, eventually. Probably sometime after their teeth are rotted and they've developed a sugar addiction.
Jaiden has eaten a very strict diet for a number of years, as he's gotten older we've discussed why this is by explaining the affects that certain foods have on him. He now makes incredibly good decisions when it comes to food, in fact just recently at a birthday party kids were swapping the goodies from their lolly bags and he came to me and said "Dad, I dunno why they are all just swapping candy, it's all junk any way", he then had 1 lolly a day for the next couple of weeks because he knows of he eats too many his "brain goes crazy" (his words), so he regulates this himself. This is not because he's always had free reign, but because his dietary restrictions were explained to him in a way that made sense.

The idea of respecting children's boundaries and allowing them to make decisions on their own is a great one and is something I practice. But I feel there needs to be a certain level of guidance, I think there's a point where allowing the child to have absolute free reign actually negatively impacts their development if there's no explanation of the consequences to their actions or choices. Our kids are all different; many require different approaches, different boundaries and different levels of guidance. If letting your children have free reign in every aspect of life works for your family, that's great, but don't vilify those families whom it does not work for.

Respectful parenting should also entail respecting all parents.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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