Proponents of liberty will tell anyone who will listen that liberty feels good. A liberty mindset prescribes the complete absence of force, which gives us peace, feelings of competence, feelings of being in charge, and feelings of great connectedness to others as we perceive ourselves as integral parts of a much greater whole. When we understand liberty, we lose the desire to seek out our own best interest at others’ expense. We lose the socially engrained feeling that someone else, some great “They”, will fix community problems, and we begin to take ownership for roles our forbearers mastered during childhood. In short, when we learn to safeguard ourselves against the effects of the mantle of force, we can begin to blossom emotionally. So how do we convey the true ethics of liberty to our children? I have heard people who claim to be liberty-loving turn in the same breath and treat a child as if his autonomy is unimportant.
Picture the well-meaning parent who, using an authoritarian (forceful) approach, tells his child “Pick up your room.” If the child’s natural instinct of autonomy is intact, he will not be likely to comply. It is not an act of defiance, laziness, or evidence that more force is needed; however, parents often perceive it as such and up the force ante (”Clean your room right now or…”), which as we all know ends up in power struggles, unrelated rewards and privileges attempts, and other parenting nonsense. Force on another human being never works because it is not mentally healthy, and children are really good little Geiger counters for sensing when the poison of force is being radiated against them.
Now picture a parent who uses an authoritative (liberty-loving) approach, helping the child to problem-solve the need for taking up his necessary roles. She walks into a room, gets on her child’s eye-level and comments from a standpoint of curiosity and non-judgmental interest: “Oh wow, it’s getting hard to walk in here.” She pauses, waiting for and expecting a response. She is curious what her child will do with this information she has just given him. She highlights the problem and never hands over the solution. She respects her child as a skilled problem solver who can learn to master his own environment without needing her to cajole or use force. The adult in our scenario knows that her role is just to bring a magnifying glass down onto the role that for some reason the child is not seeing or desiring to fulfill on his own and help make the need for the role clearer so that the child will want to do it. This is called the transference of ownership. Before intervening, the adult is the only one owning the idea that the child needs to have a clean room. The adult does what is needed to gently transfer the ownership of that idea until it becomes the child’s own, self-motivated idea to fulfill the role of room cleaning. The liberty-loving parent is completely comfortable with silence and whatever time the child needs to work out his own solutions in the safety of his home and his safe (unforced) relationship with his parental Guide. This adult is present with the child, completely content to be there as a resource while the child finds out how completely powerful he is to master his own world. The child knows he is safe to explore all of his options (even not cleaning it) without being criticized, labeled, or judged, and so he will explore them and eventually will make the best decision he is capable of because he is an upward-striving being who will only be truly comfortable when he is not limiting himself or having limits placed on him by others. This child knows that it would never occur to his parent to leave the child alone in his filthy room without guidance and left to figure things out on his own (passive parenting) or to coercively get her own agenda met (authoritarian parenting). The child knows that he and his parent are firmly on the same team. When a task is daunting, this child knows that his parent will be there with him to do whatever is necessary to make it possible for him to succeed. The parent is just in the business of guiding the child toward masterful role-fulfillment through kind, non-threatening limit setting while bringing down that figurative magnifying glass onto the problem so that the innate problem solver can fill in the obvious solution and strive for it himself.
If a parent starts to feel the anxiety or annoyance that can come from a child’s non-compliance to parental ideas and un-transferred ownership, she can learn to identify that these feelings only come because she herself was socialized early on to believe that all things are possible through force; and so she is falling victim to these old habits of expecting others to tow the line in a way that does not aid the transference of ownership in the child. If the parent does not stop herself from acting out in force, she is reinforcing to her own child that force really is okay as a last resort. That one person’s agenda really can and does matter more than another’s and that when you are big and powerful, you have the right to that agenda. For liberty lovers, this is hypocrisy at its finest.
And yet I can hear the snarky comments lining up now: “Oh, so you let the child run the roost?” “If a kid’s opinion matters as much as a parent and the kid never “has” to do anything, he never will!” “Kids aren’t ready for liberty – we need some force to control hedonistic little creatures until they grow up and can handle more freedom.” I can hear them because I am a snarky commenter. At least at heart. I did not grow up in an autonomy-respecting household, and I remember how I felt about these concepts when I first heard them. Years of watching my parents grappling to force us kids to behave had taught me well that kids “have to” obey / choose well, and good parenting means making sure that happens at all cost. Doctrinally, we know how God feels about this. He taught us through the Restoration what he did in the War in Heaven because of his Liberty-loving parenting beliefs. At that point, not allowing force into his children’s realm of experience had the consequence of losing a son to tantamount poor choices and allowing him into the world as a devil to forever try and tempt away others of his children. Even with this huge consequence and the alternative option of force having a superficially huge positive outcome of salvation for all intelligences, no potential moral good could cancel the moral evil of force and justify its use on God’s children [Moses 4:1–4] who are created to be just like Him [1 John 3:2]; fully autonomous [2 Ne. 2: 26; Hel. 14:30] and connected [John 17:23; D&C 128: 9–15] and competent [John 17:22; Abraham 3: 18–23]. Although most LDS people can explain by rote the premise of how God feels about his children’s agency, applying that respect to our own children’s agency can feel illogically daunting. Since many of these ideas are new to parents who were themselves raised with force, I’ll address these fears in hopes to win a convert or two to more mentally healthy parenting.
Myth/ Fear #1: If we don’t force kids to do well when they are young, they’ll never choose to improve themselves and become responsible adults.
Studies on Self-determination theory out of the University of Rochester in the past twenty years have indicated that all humans (big ones and little ones) have three basic emotional needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. When these three needs are met, humans become self-motivated to accomplish what they are capable of doing. Researchers state that “Human beings can be proactive and engaged or, alternatively, passive and alienated, largely as a function of the social conditions in which they develop and function” (Ryan, & Deci, 2000, p. 68). In other words, when we really grab liberty by the horns and apply it with kids, they become proactive and engaged, filling roles that other kids resist, and seeking out ways to become more responsible instead of avoiding responsibility like the plague. In fact, a recent study has indicated that the only kids that do tow that line when force is exerted upon them by an authority figure are kids that high internal levels of anxiety and avoidance (Milyavskaya et al., 2012). So when parents decide that having a well behaved kid right now justifies attempting to use force on him, it either won’t work in kids with strong inner autonomy or it will “work” at the behavioral level in kids who want really badly to please others, but will have serious costs in undermining the child’s mental health. The child who has been controlled by a parent instead of influenced and guided by a parent cannot be self-determined. She learns that she needs others to impose values onto her in order for her to be successful (learned incompetence). She begins to rely on this external locus of control more and more and to trust herself less and less (learned mistrust of autonomy and skewed connectedness). Her three basic emotional needs have just been undermined. No wonder she is anxious and avoidant. She became disconnected from her inner Self.
Myth/ Fear #2: Autonomy-respectful parenting means letting the child be in charge.
There are numerous articles explaining the difference between autonomy and independence (see Chirkov et al., 2003 for a review). In autonomy-respectful parenting as described here, the child is not in charge of the situation nor is he left to his own devices. He is only in charge of himself and his decisions. When done well, parents using this style become a dependable guide for their child apprentice. The guide is in charge, and the apprentice learns how to behave from noticing and valuing the ideas of the guide and wanting to have those ideas for himself out of respect for and trust in the guide. He becomes self-motivated because his autonomy is respected and he is in the comfortable, supportive warmth of an adult who is in charge. How to achieve this posture of respectful limit setting while honoring kids’ choices is perhaps its own article and may be the crux of the success of this model. For here, suffice it to say that it can be accomplished, even with children with mental health diagnoses and other struggles. I have seen it in my practice as a mental health counselor and in my own children who are on the Autism Spectrum, that when parents learn to back off and use themselves more thoughtfully, kids flourish naturally.
Myth/ Fear #3: Kids can’t handle freedom due to low impulse control, so force is necessary.
Parents can frame the situation for success, meeting the child where he is at in order to safeguard against misbehavior. So lock away those scissors and matches if your kid can’t handle how tempting your curtains look and give him as many choices as he can handle in each situation that arises as you go through your day together. This is another topic that could merit its own article, so I will just offer a tip to guide you in your decision-making process of how to parent your child: Before resorting to force in parenting ask yourself a few questions to find if it is really necessary.
- Is the child’s physical safety in danger if he doesn’t do what I’m hoping he will do? (Use force. Quickly.)
- Is there anything that I am scared of that is making me want him to conform to my agenda? (What will people think of me if he does that in public, What if he never learns to brush his teeth, What if….) (Consider influence over force – your desire for force may be about your insecurities, not about the child’s true best interest)
- How much does this issue really matter in the long run? (Decide if you can move down to influence/magnifying glass techniques and really let the child choose. Many daily ways that children try and set the bounds of their own autonomy in the transferring of ownership process can be easily respected and adapted for by the parent when she sees how little it matters if the child chooses her agenda quickly or not.
Studies directly pertaining to parenting have indicated again and again that authoritative parenting as outlined here far and away leads to better mental health in grown up children than any of the other three parenting options (authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful) (Padilla-Walker et al., 2012, etc.). And the good new is, liberty’s parents are prime candidates for implementing this healthy, peaceful parenting.
The field of mental health is adding empirical evidence to what liberty-lovers everywhere have known for time out of mind: When children are truly allowed to be autonomous, make unforced connections stemming from compassion, and to develop feelings of competence outside of artificial (forced situational) measures, they can thrive in personal and social realms. Liberty’s kids have more intrinsic motivation. They are more self-regulated. They care instinctively more for others and create ways to help and contribute in meaningful ways. Liberty’s kids have their psychological needs met. They are ready to grow up securely and truly own their position as adults when the time comes.
I agree with Stefan Malyneux, who has stated in no uncertain terms that liberty-loving families can easily set the standard for parenting in their neighborhoods when they apply their philosophical leanings to their parenting. As Liberty’s parents, we can easily learn to honor children’s emotional needs of autonomy, competence, and connectedness by changing instincts to control and modeling peaceful parenting to our neighbors and friends. In doing so, we will be able to grow a new generation of children who themselves have no desire to imbue force and are set firmly down the path of Freedom.
Chirkov, V., Ryan, R., Kim, Y, & Kaplan, U. (2003). Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination theory perspective on internalization of cultural orientations and well-being, journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 97-109.doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Milyavskaya, M., McClure, M., Ma, D., Koestner, R., & Lydon, J. (2012). Attachment moderates the effects of autonomy-supportive and controlling interpersonal primes on intrinsic motivation. Canadian Journal Of Behavioural Science/Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 44(4), 278-287. doi:10.1037/a0025828
Padilla-Walker, L. M, Carlo, G., Christensen, K. J., & Yorgason, J. B. (2012). Bidirectional relations between authoritative parenting and adolescents’ prosocial behaviors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(3), 400-408.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68