Parenting for freedom

The wide stretch of beach is empty except for a small colony of seagulls. My 2-year-old son takes off after them as fast as his toddler legs will carry him. With dimpled, sun-kissed arms outstretched and damp, salty curls bouncing, he runs with total abandon, determined to catch one.

The embodiment of complete freedom. Is there such a thing?

Complete freedom implies the absence of constraints or consequences, an impossibility for any form of life on Earth. The apparent freedom reflected in the picture of my son running on the beach is merely an illusion.

This simple act is actually governed by multiple constraints. The law of gravity keeps his feet on the ground, laws of nature allow the seagulls to escape, physical limits allow him to run for only so long, local ordinances require him to stay on a public beach, and parental restrictions prevent him from getting too close to the water. Yet, he expresses utter delight in his quest.

Our country’s founders, having been subject to oppression by a centuries-old monarchy, were anxious to establish freedom. So much so, they focused almost exclusively on outlining their rights. Yet, freedom without consequences does not exist. Perhaps they would have avoided confusion if they had written “The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.” The two go hand in hand.

The democracy they formed necessitates that both be accepted and protected, or freedom will be lost.

Democracy is a system of government by the whole population through elected representatives. A democratic government depends on the active, cooperative participation of its people and their ability to fully realize this responsibility. Searching online for the essential conditions of a successful democracy repeatedly gleaned these elements: an educated populace, vigilant protection of freedom, local self-government, civic-mindedness, tolerance, freedom of speech, a written constitution, and the absence of gross inequalities.

Since we are raising our children in a democracy, what are the implications of these conditions for our parenting?

Learning to think

Whereas monarchies and dictatorships thrive with a readily controlled, uneducated populace, democracies depend on people thinking for themselves.

Our children are living in an age of unprecedented access to information. As their first teachers, our role in guiding their informal education and overseeing their formal education is vital. In addition to nurturing their curiosity, we must teach them to distinguish between opinion and fact, and considering the credibility of sources. The ability to process information to formulate their own opinion is essential.

Protect and respect

As a cornerstone of democracy, freedom must be vigilantly protected. An effective method for protecting freedom is recognizing where my rights end and yours begin.

I have the right to drive, but I do not have the right to jeopardize your safety.

If in the desire to protect my freedom, I neglect yours, freedom’s future is compromised. Denial of freedom based on membership in a particular group, rather than behavior and actions, increases freedom’s vulnerability. Who knows when the group in question may be mine?


Before participating in the government of an entire population, one should first be capable of self-government. The way to avoid external constraints is to practice internal restraints.

By providing clearly stated, age-appropriate rules and expectations with reasonable consequences for failure to comply, parents assist children in acquiring self-discipline.

When participation in a rule or consequence setting and decision-making is increasingly allowed depending on age and maturity, children learn the skills necessary for taking on greater responsibility.

The inherent relationship between rights and responsibilities becomes apparent.

Social conscience

Empathy, the ability to imagine what life is like for others, is essential to developing civic-mindedness. Living by rules when expecting others to do so and considering the impact of personal decisions on others are practices that readily translate from an effective family to an effective society.

Tolerant spirit

Openly sharing ideas and participating in productive debate and discussion provides children the opportunity to practice expressing their thoughts while experiencing differences of opinion. Learning to maintain their integrity while accepting diversity is an invaluable accomplishment.

Free, not inflammatory, speech

Expressing one’s ideas, beliefs, or complaints is possible without resorting to derogatory, maligning, character assassinations of others.

When we are confident of our position, we can accept the rights of others to hold different positions without feeling threatened or compelled to agree with, approve of, or adopt theirs.

Being able to respectfully disagree shows strength of character.

Written agreements

By creating and adopting a family constitution, we demonstrate to our children the value of establishing expectations for individual members that contribute to the well-being of the entire family.

Avoiding inequality

While there is clearly inequality between parents and children in terms of age, maturity, responsibility, and knowledge, they are equal in their fundamental value as human beings. Whenever access to rights or privileges is denied due to some arbitrary characteristic, the inevitable resentment threatens the viability of the whole group.

As a microcosm of society, the family provides an ideal place to learn the democratic process. Our children learn from us what it means to be conscientious citizens in a democracy.

Like a child chasing seagulls on the beach, the pursuit of happiness involves the freedom to make choices — hopefully responsible ones.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Ky, has been married for 29 years, and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, e-mail parent4lif[email protected]

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