What happens when you let your children have it all their own way?
What happens when you let your children have it all their own way
12:20 AM on 18th May 2011
Like most children, my own brood complains constantly about my style of parenting. ‘You’re always saying “No”,’ they complain, as I tell them they can’t have yet more mayonnaise on their dinner.
‘It’s bad for you,’ I say. ‘So, no, you can’t.’
‘You say no to everything,’ says Leonard, aged eight.
He and his younger siblings — Jerry, six, and Ottoline, three — then list everything I have said ‘No’ to since they got home from school. Sweets, playing outside with their uniform on, biscuits, getting stuff out from the dressing up-drawer, painting …
Free-for-all: Lucy Cavendish with Leonard, left, Ottoline and Jerry during a week when she let them do as they pleased
I’ve always considered myself a pretty easy-going parent, and yet here they are telling me I’m a nay-saying harridan.
According to the currently fashionable idea of ‘free parenting’, though, what I should be saying is ‘Yes’.
There are various blogs and websites devoted to the notion that we should give our children free choice, and, in this way, encourage their development while at the same time teaching them responsibility.
Only this week, Dr Bryan Caplan from George Mason University in Virginia, U.S., said parents should ‘cut themselves some slack’ and stop trying to control every aspect of their children’s lives.
He called for a relaxed and fun style of bringing up children — dubbed ‘serenity parenting’ — which involves us taking a backseat role.
It’s particularly interesting to me because I recently decided to try an experiment. In the style of ‘free parenting’, I would say yes to everything my children wanted for an entire week — and see what happened.
The only rules were not to let the children know what I’d decided to do, and to ensure that I alerted them to the consequences of their actions, so they could make their own well-informed choices.
But what if they wanted to swing on the curtains and to paint the walls red What if my teenage son, 14-year-old Raymond, wanted to bring girls home every night and smoke What would I say then
There was only one way to find out …
It all starts pretty well. The children get up for breakfast and we follow our usual routine: let the dogs out, eat cereal, dress, make packed lunches.
Suddenly, my daughter, Ottoline, asks if she can eat her breakfast in front of the television. I would usually say no to this, for fear of crumbs in our sitting room attracting an infestation of ants. When I tell her to go ahead, the other children raise their heads like meerkats.
‘What about us’ they say. ‘Can we eat in the sitting room’
‘Yes,’ I say, through gritted teeth. ‘But remember the ants.’
‘We love ants,’ they say, giggling.
As I sit on my hands, while the carpet is littered with Krispie crumbs, I reflect on the fact that it’s not just the children who have a lot to learn.
Raymond comes in. He asks if he can take chocolate biscuits to school.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘What’ he says, looking suspicious. ‘What’s going on’
Cooking: The children wanted to bake a cake… and eat it all (file picture)
Things are beginning to change. ‘Why are you being so nice to us’ they say, as I nod my head to all requests.
Hot chocolate for breakfast Absolutely. Ten yoghurt Frubes in a tube in their packed lunches each No problem.
Ottoline demands to go to nursery school dressed in her rabbit costume, and, once I’ve said yes to this, the boys get very over-excited.
‘Can we make a cake when I get home’ asks Jerry.
‘Can we eat it all afterwards’
‘Can we eat the mixture’
‘Yes, but you might feel sick.’
That evening, when they get in from school, we make a chocolate cake. They get the mixture everywhere, spreading the flour all over the floor. For a split-second I panic — but does it really matter
My daughter cracks an egg in her lap and they all burst out laughing. I try not to giggle along with them, especially when I realise that I am actually having fun.
I suppose I should make them clear up the kitchen themselves, but I’ve enjoyed myself so much that I haven’t got the heart.
When the cake is baked, they demand slice after slice, which of course I agree to, while reminding them they might feel sick.
Ten minutes later ‘Mum, I feel sick.’
‘Well,’ I say sagely, ‘I did warn you — but you insisted.’
They all nod their heads, looking rather serious. I leave the kitchen feeling slightly delirious. Will they actually start to self-regulate
I’ve just put the kettle on for a calming brew when Leonard appears, holding out the book he got for his birthday, which is all about Egypt. ‘Will you read this to me’ he asks.
It’s 7am. I have a million things to do. I take a deep breath.
‘Of course,’ I say. We spend half an hour looking at pictures of pyramids and discussing the pros and cons of meeting ‘a real live’ mummy.
‘Can we go there’ he asks. ‘To Egypt’ He gives me an exacting stare.
‘Yes,’ I say, crossing my fingers behind my back, before qualifying: ‘It depends on money, though.’
‘Oh,’ says Leonard, crestfallen. ‘But I could wash people’s cars and earn money, couldn’t I’
I ruffle his hair. He’s learning about money! ‘That’s a good idea,’ I say.
Yoga: The youngsters asked mother to stand on her head, so she did
It is a bit of a joke in my family that I am mad on yoga — and any chance I can, I practise standing on my head. The children love it when I do it. They think it’s funny.
‘Can you stand on your head, please’ Jerry asks me when they get home from school.
‘Can you stand on your head for half an hour’ asks Raymond.
The children giggle non-stop, before trying to get me to drink water upside down, while feeding me biscuits. I feel torn between choking to death and waves of nausea, but the children are having such fun I don’t want to disappoint them.
I realise this is what makes them happy — silly, nonsensical family fun.
It occurs to me that all the children really seem to want is for me to relax with them, rather than always running around like a mad thing.
But today, something clicks. It’s as if, as one, they realise I am allowing them to do what they want to do — and all hell breaks loose.
‘Can we stay up as long as we like’ they ask.
‘Can we go to the pub for dinner’
‘Can we get another puppy’
On and on it goes.
I agree to them staying up late, while pointing out they will be tired in the morning (hopefully too tired to remember the new puppy). We settle down on the sofa together, watching a movie. One by one, they nod off; bar Leonard, who forces himself to stay awake till midnight.
As expected, the children are horribly tired and cranky. It’s all I can do to get them up and dressed.
‘I feel terrible,’ says Leonard, bleary-eyed.
‘I did warn you,’ I say. ‘It’s all very well doing what you want, but you have to understand there are consequences.’
My daughter spends most of the day crying, and Jerry falls asleep on the floor after lunch. It’s a disaster.
I wake him up. ‘You can’t sleep now,’ I tell him.
‘I HATE YOU!’ he shouts at me.
They ask to play on the Wii and I agree, but then World War III breaks out when they start squabbling over the controls and Jerry ends up walloping his sister.
‘Can I hit him back’ she asks me. I try to nod my head.
It’s 14-year-old Raymond who takes control of the situation — by telling them they can’t play on the Wii at all. I can’t help but feel a swell of pride that my oldest is developing a sense of responsibility.
Experiment nearly over and I feel I have proved a point — one that is very interesting to all of us.
For a start, by the end of the week the children are imploding. My acquiescence to everything has meant that they are not only buzzing with e-numbers and sugar, but are exhausted, too
But I have also learned some important lessons. The hassle of clearing up the kitchen after they have made a cake is nothing compared to the joy I feel when I hear them laughing so freely.
They just wanted to have fun, to laugh more; to not have every request quashed by a negative.
They also, I think, really started to understand why I create boundaries in their lives, because as much as they don’t like them, they are lost without them.
As I go to put them to bed on the last day, I find them sitting in a circle, doing a jigsaw together.
‘You’re playing together!’ I say.
‘Yes, can we stay up late’ asks Jerry.
‘No,’ I tell them.
They all troop off — but looking mightily relieved, it has to be said.
Jack And Jill by Lucy Cavendish (Penguin/Quick Read 1.99) is available now.