I recently read this article from The Guardian newspaper. It made me think.

In case you don’t have the time to read it (though you really should), I’ll briefly go over its main points:

  • Controlled crying seems cruel. Why do we do it?
  • Parents in other cultures hold their babies close, carry them, feed on demand, sleep with babies and young children. These babies do not grow up to be dependent but rather very independent children.
  • Many people in modern/civilized societies like the idea of controlled crying because it fits with our routine. It turns babies into schoolchildren and ultimately workers who will do what’s demanded of them, on time.
  • Children (in other cultures) who have freedom are happy.
  • Children who have autonomy over when and what they eat are happy.
  • Unrestricted, unsupervised outdoor play leads to happier children and therefore happier adults.
  • Children will learn to self-regulate their behavior if left alone with each other.

Children playing

So I read the first parts and patted myself on the back because, as a classic approval-seeker, I like it when people say I’m doing it right. Hooray for attachment parenting, which just happened to be what worked for me and my kids.

But then I got to the rest. Autonomy, you say. Freedom makes happiness. That’s lovely.

Letting them run wild in packs to socialize themselves? Haven’t you read Lord of the Flies? (What do you mean, that’s fiction? It’s clearly a well-researched thesis founded in evident fact describing what happens when you leave children alone to form their own society.)

Finding their own food when the mood strikes? That’s all very well when they can rummage for a strip of smoked reindeer meat or catch themselves a fish, but if what they’re most likely to find is my hidden stash of chocolate chip cookies – that’s not going to turn out well, is it?

Going to bed when they want to? All very well if nobody has to get up for school in the morning, and if the children are outside in the midnight sun entertaining each other whittling sticks or whatever it is they’re doing, but if they’re in my house and I want to watch Doctor Who and eat my chocolate-chip cookies in peace, I want them to be asleep before I am. Not to mention my friend who went to bed with her baby and left the six-year-old downstairs with Daddy, assuming he’d tell her when it was time to retire. At one a.m. my friend happened to wake, discovered the big girl was not in bed, went downstairs, and found her happily playing Barbies. I know that’s exactly what my four-year-old would do, if left to her own devices.

Okay, so I could wax cynical about this for a while, but the obvious truth is that we don’t live in tribal-type societies where it’s fine for all the kids to run in packs and socialize each other without adult intervention. We mostly live in nuclear-type families who all, like it or not, do have schedules. I’d get into big trouble with the other parents on the playground if I was the only one whose kids had no imposed boundaries – this has to be a society-wide thing to work.

So what can we do? How can we help our children towards independence, freedom, and happiness within the constraints of our modern lifesyle? This is what I’ve been thinking about, and I’ve come up with a few ideas.

  • I can turn off the screens and shoo them out of the house more often.
  • I can let them work things out between themselves and hang back a little more rather than jumping in as soon as there’s a disagreement. (We can give them tools of speech and hints of what’s expected behavior to help them with this, so that the times we have to intervene to stop physical violence are minimized.)
  • I can try not to stress if they don’t eat what I want them to when I think they should eat it.
  • I can make healthy snacks readily accessible so that if they don’t eat dinner they can get their own apple or banana or cheese stick an hour later.
  • I can relax a little if my kids don’t hop to it as soon as I tell them to, just because: I want my children to think for themselves, don’t I, rather than following the herd or going along with things just because they were under orders?

Let me leave you with the final lines of the article, because surely this is what we all strive for as parents, and it’s a mantra worth repeating to yourself as the house descends into chaos and you wonder if the small people you’re responsible for will ever make it to the land of reason and maturity, and if you’ll still be sane when it happens:

“The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. The true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.”

Photograph | Group of Inuit children, about 1925 | MP-0000.598.67

While trying hard to ignore her children in the hopes that they’ll socialize themselves, Christine is usually typing feverishly at her laptop with a cup of tea in hand, updating her blog at Awfully Chipper. All opinions are her own, and she reserves the right to change her mind tomorrow. All photos are from Flickr Creative Commons.