There are many reasons why kids need parents. They need parents to love them, teach them, support them, take them places and buy them stuff.
But do you know what else kids need parents for? Want to guess? Whatever you’re thinking is probably true, but I doubt it’s the answer I’m thinking of.
Kids need parents to restrict their freedom.
What?! That sounds like heresy in a freedom-loving culture.
Shouldn’t we all have freedom to follow our desires? To do what we want? To venture down the road we find most appealing? Isn’t that what our social movements (civil rights, women’s movement, gay liberation) have been about? Remove the restrictions! We want the freedom to indulge in our inclinations!
So why not kids? Why shouldn’t kids participate fully in the freedom movement? And, especially during the teen years, why shouldn’t parents capitulate to their kids’ desires?
Here’s why: To live in a world with few external restrictions, you need to have the ability to say “no” to your momentary impulses and passions. And kids (except for the most conscientious kids) do not have that ability.
Left to their own devices, how many kids do you know who will choose to eat a healthy meal over devouring dessert for dinner? How many do you know who would choose to do homework rather than indulge in video games? How many do you know who would voluntarily say “it’s time for me to go to sleep”?
The dream of “freedom from” works only if you know how to handle the “freedom to” part. You may think you’re really lucky if you have total freedom. But if you’re unable to create a viable balance between freedom and restraint, you’re not lucky at all. Witness all the grossly obese people, the crazy-in-debt people, the chronically sleep-deprived people, the addicted people. And these are adults who should have more control over their impulses than kids.
So what happens when kids are free to do as they please? Do you think their nobler instincts typically triumph over their baser ones? If so, you are a dreamer. For most kids have no idea how to handle an excess of freedom, even though they’re demanding it.
It’s natural for kids to lobby for fewer restrictions. And it’s natural for parents to ease up on restraints as kids get older. But if parents make a wholesale capitulation to endless and insistent demands for more freedom, the results typically are appalling.
Here’s the end result when kids get to run the household: They eat only what they want to eat. They watch an inordinate amount of TV. They play an endless amount of video games. They go to sleep when they damn well please. They cuss out their parents. They don’t take care of their things. They demand that their parents buy them whatever they want. They have no frustration tolerance. Their wants become their needs. Their needs must be met. Their needs supersede everyone else’s.
And that’s just a description of pre-adolescent behavior. Once adolescence hits, teens without restraints command the household, defining their most outrageous activity as acceptable because it could always be worse:
“I can’t get up today; I’m too tired. I’m not going to school. Get out of my room and leave me alone!”
“I’m having a keg party this weekend. I don’t care if I’m underage. You know it’s better if I drink at home than to be out on the street drinking.”
“Yes, I’m hooking up with a lot of girls. That’s good. You always told me not to get serious with any one girl ’til I’m older.”
“It’s only pot. I could be using heroin or cocaine like lots of other kids.”
Kids need parents to restrict their freedom, to narrow their choices and to put pressure on them to meet their obligations. Kids may not appreciate all this restraint. But they need it. And parents need to step up to the plate and provide it, even when it’s so much easier to just give in to the incessant complaining and demanding.