Seeing the best in life's challenges

Why You Shouldn’t Make Your Kindergartener Wear His Coat

on September 13, 2012

When my kids were younger, I went through a period of time where I devoured parenting books.  I’ve always had this sense that I’m here for the purpose of parenting my kids specifically and I’ve taken that role really seriously.  (To be clear, I don’t read self-help stuff to figure out what I should do, as in blindly following whatever some “expert” says.  Rather, I like to gather LOTs of opinions and perspectives, consider them all, then decide what seems to fit my situation.)

One book that really resonated with me was Parenting With Love and Logic by Cline and Fay.  I think I read this about the time my oldest was in kindergarten, because that was when we were having the struggle over whether to wear a coat or not.  Ironically (synchronistically?) one of the first examples they use in the book is exactly this.

I remember the fights about the coat.  Trying to use logic and persuasion, trying to demand he wear his coat, knowing that I would be judged by teachers and other parents if he went without, reading the warnings that came home from school about dressing your child properly.

Well, when I was a kid, I did what I was told.  That was my personality.  People who have kids with this kind of personality (or no kids at all!) will just tell you that you need to control your kid and tell him what to do.  Well, they don’t know my kid.  You can’t just tell him what to do and get compliance.  He wants to make his own decisions.  (Don’t believe me?  I should just be more firm?  HAHAHAHA!!  Want to borrow him for a day??)

The authors of this book actually encourage this approach to parenting – allowing kids to make their own decisions, even if this means they fail.  So, I didn’t make him wear a coat.  I might tell him that it was going to be cold that day, but if he didn’t take the hint and wear a coat, that was his decision.

After going through this exercise, I came to see this approach as a very positive way to empower my child.  When I let him make the decision about whether to wear a coat or not, the subtle message was, “I trust you to know when you are cold and need a coat.  You are capable of making this decision.”  It also let him experience the natural consequences of not wearing a coat.

Look, the kid was not going to die if he didn’t wear a coat one day.  It might make me cringe, it might worry his teachers, but in the end, the lesson and the message were way more effective and important.  The other side benefit, not to be underestimated, was the freedom from responsibility that I gained!  He was learning to take responsibility for himself, and once the lesson was learned, I was off the hook!!

But watch out, because this approach runs counter to the prevailing culture of parenting these days.  Another person who recognizes this trend is Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids and a blog with the same name.   Lenore is always pointing out the instances where our culture’s focus on protecting our kids from harm (even statistically insignificant harm) stifles our kids.

Of course there’s a balance.  We need some rules to keep our kids from doing really dangerous or really stupid stuff.  But as they get older, we need to let them make age-appropriate mistakes.  It’s the only way they will learn how to turn experience into wisdom.  If we do all their thinking for them, they will not develop this skill.

Believe me, many times I have wished that I could just tell my kids what to do, and that they would never question me.  It would make life so much more peaceful and easier.  The interplay of strong personalities and strong opinions is exhausting.  But I’m seeing the results.

The kid is very responsible.  At age 14, he was in Rome with his grandfather, who fell and had to go to a hospital by ambulance.  The kid totally took charge of the situation, questioned the doctors about what was up, and made sure he knew exactly which meds his grandfather should take when.  At age 15, he flew home by himself on a connecting flight, and had to switch terminals in the Atlanta airport.  I understand that not all kids have the personality to do these things at these ages, but I do believe that most kids are capable of WAY more than we give them credit for.  But it doesn’t just happen overnight, it’s a process of growth.  You have to recognize the opportunities for your particular kid and encourage them in the way that works for them, at the time that is appropriate for them.

The other aspect of taking this approach is that the parent has to choose not to let fear be in control.  There is so much “fear porn” out there and it is so easy to let that drama take hold.  For me, it comes down to a choice to view the world with faith, that God is in control.  I realize I’m on the “extreme” end of the scale on this one, which works for me.  Each parent has to decide where they are comfortable being on the scale of fear vs. trust.

What do you think?

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