Why Giving Kids Less Freedom is a Kindness

LESS freedom for kids is BETTER? Yes, you heard me right! 

Structure. In Theraplay® (this really awesome model of parent-child therapy I practice) we talk a lot about structure. It means the parent leads, and the child follows. It means that the parent carries the burden of responsibility for leadership and decision making. It means the parent is in charge, sets boundaries for the child, and shares power with the child. But why is it important? And what does it have to do with kindness?

Structure is important for 3 main reasons in a child's development: organization, safety, and impulse control. Structure creates organization for the child's world. The parent is there to guide, direct and ensure that the child knows what is expected of her. It creates a world that is predictable, with routines and rhythms. Without the adult's guidance, the child's world can feel erratic, chaotic, haphazard, scary, or disjointed. Structure creates safety in that the parent leads the child toward situations and behaviors that are safe: "No, don't run out in the street!" "Don't hit your brother, use your words." "Brush your teeth so you don't get cavities." Structure also cultivates impulse control as the parent steps in to halt the child's poor impulses until the child is able to do that for herself. Impulse control is something that develops through the mid-20s, and a child is reliant on her parent for this early on. Structure helps the child with steering and brakes: without it she is like a runaway train!

Structure is a kindness because it fosters emotional safety. The child with a structuring parent knows she is not alone in this big, bad world. She knows she has someone bigger, smarter, stronger and more experienced who is looking out for her and who is there to guide her away from trouble. Through structure, the child learns the boundaries of her control and influence. She learns to trust in another person, feel safe and relinquish unhealthy levels of anxiety. Boundaries are good for kids. Very, very good. 

Still not convinced that saying "no" and taking away some of your kid's freedom can be a good thing? Let me paint a picture through comparison: Imagine your employer never trained you before your first day of work. In fact, at your interview he hired you on the spot and threw you directly into a situation where you had no idea how to succeed. He calls meetings at random, and there is no predictable schedule to your workday: it might last 8 hours or 48, and you may or may not get a lunch break or be asked to stay the night at the office. There are no explicit rules. Generally there are few demands on you, and your boss gives you enormous amounts of freedom to decide how, where, and with whom to work, yet he is constantly underwhelmed with your performance. He has no standard measure or tool to evaluate your progress.  How would you feel toward this employer? How would you feel about yourself in this unstructured work environment? 

Next, imagine an employer who provides 2 full weeks of paid training prior to putting you on the job. He has detailed how, where and with whom you are expected to work each day. Your days and weeks are predictable; lunch breaks and meetings are held regularly, regardless of anyone's mood. He has also given you a clear outline for performance evaluations, which he completes regularly. If you're off track, he supports you with additional training, and if you achieve on the standard measures, you receive really fantastic perks. How would you feel about yourself in this structured environment? How would you feel toward your boss? 

In the first scenario, I described a work environment without structure. If you're like me and many others, you may have used the following words to describe your feelings: angry, anxious, uncertain, resentful, demoralized, confused, stressed, alone, unsuccessful, unsupported or exhausted. In the second, more structured environment you might have thought of words like calm, clear-headed, supported, goal-oriented, focused, fulfilled, and motivated. All this positivity, despite the fact that in the second workplace, there are so many more rules and limits! So much less freedom.

Think about this the next time you have to say "no" or reinforce a boundary with your kids. In the long-run, the structure you give them is a kindness! 


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Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and foster care. She especially loves helping defiant, aggressive little ones and exasperated parents.