"And I remember as a second or third grader having some autonomy to go to the store if I felt like it, walk home, take my time, kick the can. We were on our own schedule after school, so that was cool."
You know how parents lament that "back in the olden days" kids would not have dreamed of talking back or refusing to help out around the house? Children were expected to get their work done before they went off to play. The family depended on those extra hands to survive. Have you read the Little House books? Those kids worked hard, played hard, and listened to their parents. Though our lives are easier in many ways, and we have more to entertain us, something is different with kids these days. What changed?
According to this study on childrens' autonomy, over the last 70-something years we've given kids more freedom as individuals at home, while restricting their time away from us. Has this independence whittled away at parental authority? Or does the problem lie in our unwillingness to allow kids the freedom to be out of sight and safety? Well perhaps it's a little of both.
Dr. Rutherford looked at how the increasing importance of individualism and personal autonomy in American culture appears in childrearing advice. She analyzed a total of 300 advice columns and relevant editorials from 34 randomly chosen issues of Parents magazine, published between 1929 and 2006, to see how parental authority and children's autonomy have been portrayed over the last century.
The articles in Parents showed that children were increasingly autonomous when it came to their self-expression, particularly in relation to daily activity chores, personal appearance and defiance of parents. In contrast to this increased autonomy that child-centered parenting has given children, the 20th century has seen, in other ways, children's autonomy curtailed, through increasingly restricted freedom of movement and substantially delayed acceptance of responsibilities. Children now have fewer opportunities to conduct themselves in public spaces free from adult supervision than they did in the early and mid-twentieth century.
Dr. Rutherford concludes: "Today's parents face demands that require near-constant surveillance of their children. Allowing children more autonomy to express themselves and their disagreements at home may well be a response to the loss of more substantial forms of children's autonomy to move through and participate in their communities on their own."
I do think self-expression at home is important. I teach my kids that it's o.k. to question everything: me included. Even so, there is still rudeness and sarcasm occasionally.* I also teach the value of work, and the role that each member of a family plays in keeping a household running. I spend most of my day in chores, meal preparations, schooling, and reading/learning. Then I talk about what I'm doing, why it's important, and how it makes me feel (happy). My kids know what I expect from them too. Robotson has his own chores, real work that I expect him to do on his own and correctly. I keep the girls involved even when I would prefer they not "help". It's more work for me now, but they'll be that much more experienced in a few years. I think I have a better handle on the balance between work and autonomy at home than I do with the freedom outside. Perhaps it's something I should be looking at a little more closely to help reduce some of the daily challenges.
One of my favorite blogs is Free-Range Kids written by Lenore Skenazy. You may remember her as the mom who let her nine year old ride the subway home from a department store by himself. She advocates for letting kids have more freedom - outside of the parental sphere of control. Ultimately, you need to know your own children, but I think she's right. If your child is begging for more independence and you know they are mature enough to problem solve, then why not give them that control? My friend Mo did it. I've started giving Robotson a little more space. Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at giving him more freedom outside of the house too.
*To be fair sarcasm is a shortcoming of mine and the kids learned it pretty quickly.