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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein


Although itís been bandied about a lot in the media lately, freedomís kind of a tricky word, and it means a lot of different things to different people. To my wife Janice, itís the unexpected snow day that means she can roll over in the morning and get back to sleep rather than driving to the high school where she tries to reach a sometimes unappreciative audience of teens. For myself, itís time alone when I am responsible for no children, like the late nights I spend writing. For the pair of us collectively, itís the idea of sidling elegantly from beneath the crushing weight of debt that is home ownership and rapidly growing children. For angered Americans, itís suddenly become a euphemism for the French. Overall, though, our lives are pretty good. For the Iraqi parents currently finding themselves homeless, voiceless, limbless, childless, or lifeless, freedom is, like the song says, just another word for nothing left to lose.

But as a parent, the issues of freedom that I normally confront are not really matters of my own freedom, but of the relative freedom my children enjoy. I try to make reasonable decisions, but I know that there are knee jerk and deep-rooted historical notes in the symphony of my thinking. When I was young, it felt like I enjoyed very little freedom. I ate the meals my mother prepared, no matter how long it took me sitting at the table to choke them down. I contrast this with Keefeís refusal of not one but two different dinners this evening, and the combination of surprising temper and sympathy that invokes within me. At the same time, I can remember hitchhiking six miles into town from momís house to visit a vague itinerary of friends at his age, which is unthinkable today. The world changes. So where does the wise dad draw the imaginary line between thou shalt and letting go?

A Taoist aphorism suggests that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Self-determinism is something vast, and to come into it suddenly would be like tripping at the lip of an abyss. Children who live firmly beneath the parental thumb donít get the practice making good decisions they will need when inevitably they swim in deep waters themselves. Growing levels of independent responsibility a bit at a time makes the transition from infancy (complete dependence) to adulthood (independence) somewhat smoother. I want my sons to not only feel progressively more free, but also more confident and grown up.

Freedom is inextricably tied to responsibility. The reason I don't give Keefe absolute freedom is that I don't want him to get in over his head and learn things the hard way. In the final reckoning, though, I can't stop him from doing so. It's a part of how we all learn, and I remember many boneheaded decisions I was fortunate to survive as a teen. Like me, he'll carefully think through some aspects of his life and autopilot the remainder on the basis of whim, habit, peer influence, attempts to please us, and bullish revolt against us. His decisions are, after all, how he will define himself as an individual. And despite my fears, I want him to reach, to dare, to take risks. Just not stupid ones. When we're clashing about meals or homework I try to remind myself that these are the proverbial small potatoes. I constantly want to do better so that more mountainous sex drugs and morality themes remain surmountable later.

If we treat our kids like we have faith in them to make good choices, they will usually make it true. Expectation is a surprisingly powerful tool. If you show up at a party feeling happy and interesting and attractive, most people will treat you as attractive, just as they will pick up on it if you beam out miserable and unlovable vibes. It works the same with oneís offspring: they know on a deep level when youíre giving them real trust. Because of that, and no matter how hard it is, you can never take back a freedom you allow your child. Once we allow them control over some aspect of their lives, we must resist the urge to judge their choices, meddle, or mouth off at them about it.

Whatever you do, never shoot yourself in the foot by attempting to strictly lay down the law: ďNever let me catch you doing that around here!Ē The moment you tell your teen that, you guarantee that their interest will go underground. The operative part of the sentence is Ďdonít let me catch youí, after all, so if theyíre, say, curious about drugs, you're denying them a relatively safe space to experiment when they go elsewhere. A strict no-tolerance policy about anything removes the opportunity to talk about it. Maybe your teen, like many, will decide that moderation is superior to abstinence, and your matter-of-fact approach may contribute to that decision, but at least you will not have established a precedent of non-communication between you.

Despite being guilty of it, I see the arrogance in trying to control our children's lives and environments as much as we sometimes do. We do it because we love them, but we have to keep remembering that they are wise. Hopefully, in the long run, wiser than we. And hopefully we will be encouraging them to trust the inner voice that tells them when enough is enough, how to react, or what to do, rather than teaching them to always look over their shoulder at us when confronted by the question "Should I?"

Because it would be teaching them to be followers. Because we can't always be there, nor should we.

And because they already know.
Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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