Oli students are smart and, often, wise beyond their years. So at this morning’s community meeting, I asked them for some parenting advice. They have all met my little boy, Colton, and when I mentioned his name today, there was a chorus of “awwww!” So I knew any advice they gave on his behalf would, at least, be sincere.
“We all value freedom. I definitely do,” I started, “But how much freedom should I give two-year old Colton?”
“He should have very little freedom because he doesn’t know how to keep himself safe yet,” a student answered.
“Yes,” someone else chimed in, “but enough freedom to explore and learn, as long as you are right there to step in.”
After a thoughtful pause in the conversation, another student articulated the most succinct description of developmental theory I have ever heard.
“I think that you should give him a small amount of freedom at first and, as he demonstrates readiness, expand that freedom so that he can continue to learn and grow with a measure of safety that is appropriate for his age and abilities.”
Then I asked, “what might be the result, now and in the future, if I give him too much freedom?”
One student answered that, “he might end up spoiled.” Another said, “he could get hurt or die.”
“If you give him too much freedom he might get to be our age and not really know how to follow the rules or be a part of a community. And then you might start trying to set limits and he won’t know how to deal with it at all. He’ll be like ‘what the @$#&?!’”
“What if I give him too little freedom?” I asked.
“It is possible that he would end up feeling limited in his confidence. Then when he got to be our age he might become withdrawn and depressed over it.”
“Afraid of everything.”
“He would not have the skills necessary to thrive in the world.”
When I asked what freedom would ideally look like for him as an adult, they told me that it would be abundant, but limited by things like “common sense,” and “everyday external bureaucratic requirements, like filling out paperwork to get your driver’s license, even though you already learned how to drive a car on your grandparents’ farm,” and, most importantly, by “care for others and respect for their freedoms.”
Finally I asked them how I will know whether or not I am being too permissive or too strict. Someone said, “good luck!” and we all laughed. Then they told me that that was a case-by-case thing. That I would have to stay connected enough to him to understand his uniqueness. That Colton, like every young person, would have specific needs that would ideally be addressed in a highly personalized way. He would benefit from being given enough room and second chances to make, and learn from, mistakes as long as he showed a desire and willingness to keep improving and as long as his mistakes were not too disruptive to others or too dangerous to him. They agreed that that was the best way to get him ready to manage his own freedom as an adult and to give him the confidence and skills to be at home anywhere*.
As I mentioned, Oliverian students are both smart and wise. They all knew that, really, I was asking about them by asking about my boy. I am grateful to be part of a community of students who are capable of reflection and willing to struggle and persist in order to become.
I am also grateful to be raising my own boy in the company of such wise and affectionate big brothers and sisters.
* Not only are these answers insightful, but they also square with Oliverian’s basic “theory of change” and are well supported by research, including mindset theory, self-determination theory, clinical and educational rapport research, antifragile theory, and authoritative parenting approaches.