Recently, I attended a panel discussion entitled Parenting Like a Libertarian where four homeschooling mothers and one homeschooling father discussed how they integrate the principles of freedom into their homeschooling and parenting approaches.
Meet the Parents
Jen is a mother of four boys and a self-described relaxed homeschooler. Kitty has three younger kids and is actively involved with the Granite State Home Educators, a local support organization for homeschooling families in New Hampshire. Kelly is an unschooling mother whose children have since gone on to become successful adults. Finally, Amber and Steven are young homeschooling parents with three children.
What is a Libertarian?
Some reading this post might be wondering what a libertarian is and what it has to do with parenting. Libertarianism, put simply, is a set of political beliefs that holds liberty as its core principle. Much in line with the founding principles of the United States, libertarians maintain that the best government is that which governs the least. By extension, if one were to translate this into a parenting style, it would no doubt be one that affords the child a large degree of freedom and autonomy. Not surprisingly, many libertarians find their way to unschooling.
But how does one reconcile this with concepts such as maintaining order in the home, defining who has the final say in household matters, etc.? Each of the parents on the panel discussed what it means to them to instill principles of freedom in the home.
Inspired by Past Injury
It was interesting to hear some of the parents talk about parenting mistakes they had been on the receiving end of as children. One of the mothers said that while a child her father would actually say, "Your body belongs to me." This imparted a sense that girls were inherently victims, something she did not want her own children to feel. For her, it has always been paramount that her children know their bodies belong to them from the get-go. She wants them to be free to be the individual human beings they are, to never feel as if they are the property of another person. Therefore, this desire to respect their freedom has become a defining characteristic of her parenting style.
An Evolution of Parenting Styles
Quite the opposite experience, another one of the mothers was raised by a single mother, given lots of freedom, and treated as a peer instead of as a child. As many kids do, she eventually sought to be different and eventually became a very strict parent herself. Eventually, however, she decided for her it's better not to try and shape them into something they are not. She then went on to try and be the best friend and partner she could be to her children, thus enabling them to freely be their own person.
Power in the Home is an Illusion
Finally, one of the parents explained it was their children who actually led them to their parenting style and, subsequently, their libertarian beliefs as opposed to (what is more typical) the other way around. One of their three children was a very strong willed child and it made them realize they, as parents, actually don't hold all the power. Recognizing they would never have "all the power" allowed them to open up to the fact that freedom would be a necessary component of their children's lives.
Achieving Outcomes without Force
One member of the audience asked, "How do you get your children to do what you want without forcing them?" The panelists say the key, in short, is to somehow give them freedom of choice while still getting what you want as the parent. They went on to discuss many aspects of this seemingly simple piece of advice.
Keeping the Pants On
Jen advised defining what the actual have-to's are. What do we really need our kids to do? The list may be smaller than we think, and the left-overs are things we may simply want them to do, or things where it doesn't really matter.
Kelly advised understanding what your child requires and planning around it. Using the example of a child who takes forever to put their pants back on in the store, she explains that perhaps extra time should be built into the day's plan to allow for the fact that the child simply will not put his clothes back on quickly. When Steven's son asks, "Why do I need pants on in the store?" he turns it into a learning opportunity, sometimes even engaging an employee of the store to help answer the question.
Kitty adds one of the best tricks in the book: "You have to have a goal in mind and then figure out how it becomes their idea." Instead of telling them to put their pants on, decide on the goal of them putting their pants back on and ask questions or engage in dialogue that leads to their deciding to put on the pants.
The Spirited Child
Some children are just tough. Two of the panelists have what are called spirited children, those that pretty much never want to do what they're told. To make matters worse, when things don't go their way they simply explode. However, Jen cautions the crowd:
You can't stop an explosion from happening once it's already started.
Jen advises examining what happened upstream of the explosion to determine what its root cause was. This will help spot and prevent future explosions from occurring before it becomes too late. Realizing her son simply has some need that must be met, she will often ask, "How do you think we could both get our needs met?" Posing this question might actually trigger them to help craft a solution that accomplishes what he/she needs and what you as the parent needs. Essentially, they are being given freedom to engage in the decision-making process.
Children Are People, Not Projects
Amber and Steven advised parents should remember their children are people, not projects. Too often parents try to push their own interests onto their children rather than nurturing the child's own interests. This is an important point when it comes to achieving outcomes without force. By pushing your own interests onto your child, it is like trying to put the proverbial square peg into a round hole, and it will become forced. Instead, work on identifying the child's interests, giving them the freedom to focus on that interest, and using their own passion to continue to educate and develop that child.
Freedom to be Wrong
Finally, the panelists agreed one of the best things that can be done for a child is to apologize to your kids and take responsibility for your own actions whenever you feel you might not have handled something correctly. This leading by example demonstrates to the child that it's okay to not be right all the time.
Raising Self-Sufficient Children
One member of the audience asked how to start raising your children to be self-sufficient from an early age. Self-sufficiency is a key tenant of freedom, because without it one becomes overly dependent on others, and when one is overly dependent on others they become less free. So how do we teach children to be self-sufficient?
Kelly's experience is that jumping in and helping your children doesn't really work. Often times she would just need to put her hands in her pockets and let them figure things out for themselves.
Kitty echoed these sentiments, saying "I had to let my kids fail so much." The trick, she says, is to let them fail incrementally. "When they're little, they have little failures." As they get older, you allow those failures to get bigger and bigger as they become better and better equipped to handle them.
Trust, Honesty, and Self-Reliance
Continuing her thoughts, Kitty explained children need to be trusted to be able to figure things out, handle failure, and grow. Jen added to this in stating she makes it a point to be brutally honest with her children. She shared the story of her son who wanted to paint his toenails. When going to Tai Kwon Doe, she was sure to tell him some of the children might not think they are cool, but that it's okay. This way, he would not be surprised if any bullying comments were made. In being honest with him, and then trusting him to be able to handle the situation, she empowered him to be self-reliant in that situation.
Education is an integral part of parenting. By homeschooling, we take full ownership of this aspect of parenting. As homeschoolers, we cherish the freedom to take on such a rewarding challenge. How do we ensure we grant this cherished freedom to our children and not fall into the trap of using our own freedom to impose an authoritarian style of parenting? At the same time, how do we ensure our home doesn't turn into the Wild West and run off the rails?
It's a tall order, but it's doable as long as we hold ourselves to the same expectations as our children. If we let them fail, we should be willing to let ourselves fail as well. Understand there is no one-size-fits-all technique and that we're only going to reach our full potential as parents if we trust in ourselves to learn through our own experience, no different than how we should trust our children to learn through theirs.
If you do meet failure, trace back the failure to its root cause in order to understand how to approach things better next time. And, if you trace back your parenting style to some failing of your own parent's, then understand their style may have been an attempt at correcting their parent's. I believe we need to be honest with ourselves that there is no perfect way to do this. Freedom is risky, but with risk can come great reward. Believe in yourself, and believe in your child's ability to learn. Empower them by including them in decision-making. Harness their passions and keep your own biases in check. Trust them to learn from their mistakes, and lead by example by admitting yours.
All of us perform best when given freedom to live our lives as we see fit. How do you incorporate freedom into your home?
About the Author
Aaron is a father of two and co-founder of Be.Education along with his wife. His goal is to create the best online community platform possible for homeschoolers so we may better enable each other to take on the wonderful challenge of being the alternative in education our children deserve.