Creating angst ridden young children in the name of freedom

One of the most terrifying discoveries which we make as adults is that every day we face a literally infinite number of choices. For many of us, this is such a frightening thought that we block it out and deliberately reduce the choices which are open to us. We do this by defining ourselves as 'good parents' or 'Christians' or even 'socialists'. These labels are all ways of limiting the options open to us. If we call ourselves 'good parents' then the option of starving, killing or abusing our children is removed. If we are 'Christians', then we cannot steal or commit adultery and so on. This can be reassuring when we are faced by countless choices. The truth is that we are all of us really no more than the sum of our actions, which are in turn the result of the choices we have made.

This freedom to act is of course the source of existential angst, the terrible anxiety with which infinite choice fills us. Kierkegaard, an early existentialist put it thus:

'Dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when freedom gazes into its own possibility'.

One could hardly live like this, getting up each day and not knowing if one was going to make breakfast, stand on one's head, run out of the house naked or cut the kids' throats and then burn down the house! It is for this reason that we suppress many of our choices and lead fairly mundane and predictable lives. Few adults can live comfortably with the prospect of infinite choice.

If this is the case with adults, how much more so is it likely to be the case with children. If we as adults are terrified of staring into that abyss of absolute freedom to act as we wish, imagine what a child would feel! This is one of the reasons why we restrict the choices available to children. For the average child, even making the decision whether to have cereal or toast can be quite enough, without being presented with a range of literally unlimited options. Our children tell us this plainly when they are young. A child has sheets of blank paper, an array of coloured pencils and complete freedom to draw anything. Typically, he sits there for a while and then says to his mother, 'What shall I draw?' The fact that he is free to draw anything in Heaven or on Earth, or even something from his own imagination is just too much for him sometimes. Our children say things like, 'I'm bored, what shall I do?' or they ask us what they can read or a thousand other questions. Too much choice is confusing and a little scary for children, just as it is for most adults.

It isn't just the choices that are alarming. With freedom of choice comes responsibility. Now as an adult, I am quite happy with this. I have chosen to write this blog post and if it irritates people, as quite often seems to happen, I alone take responsibility for that. Many adults don't like this feeling of being responsible. They try to dodge the issue by claiming, 'I didn't have any choice' or, 'My husband made me do it', or 'I couldn't do that because of the children'. Once again, we see adults anxious to avoid the consequence of their choices, not wanting so many choices. Thrusting such responsibilities upon children can be cruel. It is frightening for a child to feel that he is in control and not his parents. A large part of the security of childhood consists of this feeling of being protected and cared for, of having little responsibility and accepting that others make decisions on your behalf. There will soon enough come a time when the child becomes an adult and has to face being grown-up and taking responsibility for her decisions. There is certainly no need to hasten this process by passing control of important matters to the child and allowing her to assume the responsibility at a young age.

Some adults revel in this autonomy. They love the feeling of being in control of their own lives, making decisions and choosing what will happen next. Others prefer somebody else to make their decisions for them. As parents, we gradually allow our children small amounts of autonomy as they grow older, the aim being that one day they will become self-sufficient adults who control their own destinies. Making them into autonomous beings at too young an age may be harmful to their psychological health. They are being given power that they are not really able to handle. This is because part of being an autonomous person is that you are able to fully appreciate the likely consequences of your actions. You balance the possible outcomes and decide on one course of action or another. Adults can do this and foresee what might happen as a result of their actions even a quarter of a century from now. Think of somebody arranging a mortgage of twenty fives years; the person is looking into the distant future and visualising what will happen. This takes years of practice and we all of us, even after fifty years or so of doing this, still make poor choices. Children are simply not capable of doing this. It is enough for them if they can imagine six months ahead, never mind twenty years! They cannot, nor should they be asked to, make decisions which will affect their lives for decades to come. The long-term consequences of such choices are simply too great and beyond their comprehension. They will have to live with those consequences for many years and it is simply unfair to put this responsibility upon them in childhood.

When adults seek to establish their own autonomy by claiming the freedom to make decisions and to abide by the consequences of those decisions, it is very right and proper. This is called growing up and it is sad that some outwardly grown-up people never seem to reach this stage of maturity! To hasten this developmental stage by forcing children to assume autonomy is a different matter entirely. In such a case, their autonomy is not a freely chosen path, but one thrust upon them by their parents. The result of being compelled to accept adult autonomy in this way might well be to precipitate prematurely the angst of which men like Kierkegaard wrote. In short, it is likely to do more harm than good,