Re­spon­si­bil­ity or free­dom? Get­ting the bal­ance right

‘Over-per­mis­sive’ or ‘dis­en­gaged’ par­ent­ing leaves chil­dren vul­ner­a­ble and un­pro­tected

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Dr John Sharry is a so­cial worker and psy­chother­a­pist and co-de­vel­oper of the Par­ents Plus Pro­grammes. He will de­liver an evening par­ent­ing sem­i­nar on Self Es­teem on Tues­day 28th Novem­ber in Dublin. See so­lu­ for de­tails

In re­cent times we have read about the prob­lems of be­ing a “he­li­copter par­ent” who “hov­ers” over chil­dren be­com­ing over-in­volved, de­cid­ing too much for chil­dren and not giv­ing them the free­dom to learn from their own mis­takes.

How­ever, equally prob­lem­atic is “over-per­mis­sive” or “dis­en­gaged” par­ent­ing, when any­thing goes and chil­dren are given too much free­dom for them to han­dle, or when par­ents are dis­con­nected from their chil­dren in a way that leaves them vul­ner­a­ble and un­pro­tected. The key to good par­ent­ing is to strike a bal­ance be­tween em­pow­er­ing chil­dren to de­cide for them­selves and set­ting rules to guide and pro­tect them.

Set­ting clear rules

In my clin­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, gen­er­ally par­ents set too few rather than too many rules with their chil­dren. Good par­ents can be per­suaded by their chil­dren to be “over per­mis­sive” rather than “over con­trol­ling” and this can lead to prob­lems.

Re­cently, I worked with a fam­ily, where the 12-year-old boy had ac­cess to his tablet overnight with his own pri­vate pass­word (mean­ing his par­ents could not mon­i­tor his on­line ac­tiv­ity). As a re­sult, he was ac­cess­ing vi­o­lent and porno­graphic sites which were hav­ing a detri­men­tal im­pact on him. Clearly, he needed def­i­nite rules about his tablet use, in­clud­ing a ban on late-night use and the agree­ment his par­ents would know his pass­word to mon­i­tor his use. How­ever, his par­ents had drifted into a sit­u­a­tion of not set­ting ap­pro­pri­ate rules around tech­nol­ogy and it took some time to re-es­tab­lish them.

In ad­di­tion, many par­ents might let their young teenage chil­dren drink al­co­hol at home with their friends out of a be­lief that this is safer than them drink­ing in un­su­per­vised set­tings. The prob­lem is there is no ev­i­dence for this more per­mis­sive stance and in fact the ev­i­dence is to the con­trary. Young teenagers who drink at home – al­beit su­per­vised by their par­ents – are much more likely to binge drink out­side the home in un­su­per­vised ways than peers whose par­ents adopt a more con­ser­va­tive stance. While there is room for ne­go­ti­a­tion, chil­dren need clear, pos­i­tive and gen­er­ally con­ser­va­tive rules around safety to guide them.

Stat­ing clear pref­er­ences

As teenagers get older, of course they need to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for them­selves and so fewer “par­ent rules” are ap­pro­pri­ate. How­ever, even in those sit­u­a­tions par­ents have a cru­cial role in ad­vis­ing and guid­ing teenagers. Teenagers are very in­flu­enced by their par­ents’ val­ues and pref­er­ences once these are com­mu­ni­cated to them. For ex­am­ple, you might say, “of course you have to make your own de­ci­sions, but I would pre­fer if you didn’t smoke at all, given how dam­ag­ing it is”. Or “I know you can make up your own mind when you are 18 about drink­ing al­co­hol, but I’d pre­fer if you waited un­til you were older, and re­mem­ber you don’t have to start drink­ing at all – you make your own de­ci­sion”.

Grad­u­ally in­creas­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity

Par­ent­ing is a bit like go­ing on a long plane jour­ney with your chil­dren. When they are younger, you are ex­clu­sively the “pi­lot” mak­ing all the de­ci­sions in their lives. As they get older, you want them to be­come your “co-pi­lot” as you show them how to use the “con­trols” as you share the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing de­ci­sions in their lives. When they are adults, you want them to have taken over as the “pi­lot” so they can be­come fully in charge of fly­ing their own plane.

A key prin­ci­ple in teach­ing chil­dren how to be safe is to grad­u­ally in­crease their re­spon­si­bil­ity. Don’t im­me­di­ately hand over all the con­trol to them and in­stead in­crease this step by step. For ex­am­ple, you might start by only let­ting them go out to su­per­vised par­ties, then you might just bring and col­lect them, and then you might let them go by them­selves once they come back at an agreed time. You take time to pre­pare them for each step and only let them take the next step once they have shown they can be re­spon­si­ble.

Pre­par­ing chil­dren for re­spon­si­bil­ity It is im­por­tant you take time to pre­pare chil­dren for each step of in­creased re­spon­si­bil­ity. Be­fore you al­low your chil­dren ac­cess to a new tech­nol­ogy it is a good idea to take time to dis­cuss rules and safety is­sues (eg what would you do if some­one you don’t know on­line asks you for per­sonal in­for­ma­tion?).

Or be­fore let­ting your teenager go to party, you agree the rule of not drink­ing and smok­ing and then ex­plore the how they can keep them­selves safe (eg what would they do if some­one of­fered them a cig­a­rette?).

Hold­ing chil­dren to ac­count As a par­ent, it is very im­por­tant that you su­per­vise the rules that are es­tab­lished and you hold chil­dren to ac­count for them. If a child can­not keep a rule or do what is ex­pected of them with a new re­spon­si­bil­ity, then you need to fol­low up with them. Usu­ally tak­ing a tem­po­rary step back on the road to re­spon­si­bil­ity is the best con­se­quence. For ex­am­ple, if they can’t take the re­spon­si­bil­ity of lim­it­ing their screen time them­selves, then you set a timer or have an au­to­matic switch off. Or if a teenager comes home drunk from a party, then you re­duce their free­dom go­ing out un­til they can prove to you they can be re­spon­si­ble.

When set­backs hap­pen the most im­por­tant thing is to talk through the is­sues with your chil­dren so as to help them learn from their mis­takes. For ex­am­ple, you might ex­plore ask­ing them ques­tions such as: what hap­pened and how this af­fected other peo­ple? What they have learned and what will they do next time? What they think the con­se­quences should be?

In the end, chil­dren will learn more from what you do than what you say as a par­ent. It is your own ac­tions, habits and life­style that will have the big­gest in­flu­ence on them. If you model re­spon­si­ble safe be­hav­iour then this is the ex­am­ple they are most likely to fol­low

Next ar­ti­cle

The next ar­ti­cle in the Pres­sure Points se­ries will ap­pear in two weeks on Novem­ber 21st and will look at how you can teach chil­dren to deal with peer pres­sure.

All six ar­ti­cles will ap­pear to­gether on irish­


It is im­por­tant you take time to pre­pare chil­dren for each step of in­creased re­spon­si­bil­ity.

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