How do we help our children understand that they are in full control of their lives, free to make the choices that are best for them? How do our children learn independence through our rules? Do our rules set them up to believe that there is always someone in charge and it isn't them?
I have been thinking about this throughout the week. In our house we use time outs as punishments. What I recently realized was that our kids often feel like victims. They feel, as I believe a lot of children do, as if I am imposing my rules on them. I am in charge and they need to do what I say. It quickly becomes rather dictatorial.
I have been uncomfortable with this set up the entire time I have been a parent and have tried less aggressive approaches, but they usually don't work. After six years of parenting, I am finally clear on how to handle crime and punishment.
Our children have their independence. They always have it. It doesn't have to be earned or gained when they are older. They are always free, but at a very young age they would be not be able to care for themselves. So we have to care for them, show them how to behave in society, show them how to care for others. But through this whole process they are free. We are simply facilitators of life lessons. So how do we use our rules to shape them, but not remove their freedom? How do we punish without turning our children into victims?
As a parent I simply need to present them with the options available to at that moment. I'm the facilitator, not the dictator. They are are the choice maker, not the victim.
For example, my son has a friend over and they are being very loud and enthusiastic about setting up a pretend lemonade stand. I have asked them several times to quiet down because the baby is sleeping. The third time I speak with them I say,
"I know you are having fun, but I have asked you several times to quiet down because your baby brother is sleeping. When you were a baby we were quiet for you and let you rest. We need to do the same for him. You can choose to be kind and loving and remember that he needs his sleep or you can choose to not be loving and kind towards him and be noisy. If you make the choice to keep being noisy, then your friend will have to go home."
If the friend is sent home and he is upset, I simply refer back to this conversation and remind him that I explained to him what was going to happen. He made the choice, not me.
When I explain it this way, he isn't the victim and I am not the dictator. He is independent of me. There is a healthy indifference and the choice isn't based on my rules. It is based on whether he chooses to demonstrate kindness towards his brother. That is a choice that will mature over time and if he just isn't ready to make that choice right now, that is fine. The friend will simply have to go home.
It takes the burden off of me to force him to be good. I don't have to! What transpires is a direct result of what he is capable of doing mentally and emotionally at that time. I simply have to carry out the actions I explained to him earlier. That's it. I don't have to get angry. I don't have to feel bad. While he may become upset if his friend goes home, this strong emotional response only helps him realize the repercussions of his actions. That's a good thing! Perhaps he'll think more about what he is doing and dig deeper emotionally next time to try to show kindness towards his brother. I can even remind him of that if the issue arises again, but in the end it is up to him to make the choice that best suits him at that moment.
When all is said and done there is no good decision or bad decision, just learning and facilitating. That is our job as parents. Helping our kids feel empowered in life and free to make their choices is part of what we do. Our kids aren't victims of anything if we give them the power to choose otherwise.