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  • Writer's pictureShane Ayers

Give Kids More Freedom in These 4 Areas and They'll Thrive

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Children need freedom, properly understood, to flourish as human beings and be happy.

Children are humans. Slower, cuter, and crankier (sometimes) than their adult counterparts, they are nonetheless fundamentally the same kind of being we are. Humans of nearly any age enjoy stories, laughing, conversation just a bit above their level, and the satisfaction of making something with their hands. Children generally like what adults like, but on a more accessible, more innocent level.

It follows, then, that children must have some freedoms. After all—if St. Thomas and Aristotle are to be believed—the will (and, more specifically, a free will) is part of the essence of our humanity. Thus, a recognition of this aspect of our human nature will be necessary in order to achieve the fulfillment of that nature. This is as much to say: we humans, at some level, must be free in order to be happy.

Part of the wisdom of parenting is to allow children enough freedom to learn from their own poor use of freedom before they enter into the more costly stage of adult decision making.

As a teacher for the past 12 years, I've observed the very real harms suffered by children who are denied the freedom necessary for their healthy development. A school is a human technology that restricts freedom for the sake of learning: the will for the reason. This is obvious from the fact that any classroom will naturally be talkative (will) until the teacher takes command of the room to teach a lesson (reason). This is not inherently evil, except perhaps to the most utopian progressives; it is simple reality (which said utopians may not have encountered yet). But we should be keenly aware of the dangers this technology tends toward: a restriction of freedom. So I would like to offer some good natured suggestions to parents and teachers, especially those entrusted with the care of younger children, where this temptation to forget freedom is greatest. If we give children more freedom in these four areas, they will be better able to flourish as human beings and be happy, now and as young adults making their way in the world.

1. Freedom from Twaddle

What is twaddle? The term I have in mind comes from the 19th century British educator Charlotte Mason, who used the term frequently to describe demeaningly simplified children’s books: “...children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose.” (Charlotte Mason, School Education).

But the principle applies beyond mere books: “Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe,... the fight at Thermopylae… These are the sorts of things that children play at by the month together; even the toddlers of three and four will hold their own manfully with their brothers and sisters... And, if the little people were in the habit of telling how they feel, we should learn perhaps that they are a good deal bored by the nice little games in which they frisk like lambs, flap their fins, and twiddle their fingers like butterflies.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education)

Twaddle is every dumbed-down book printed for the school market which no adult would ever want to look at on their own. It is every gaudily-bright cartoonish decoration, every motivational poster, every comic sans font printout that says to a child, “This is what we think of you. This is what you are capable of. And it isn’t much.” Twaddle is a result of our failure to realize we actually cultivate the aesthetic tastes of children, not just pander to a preexisting preference within them.

Twaddle stifles freedom because it sets a low ceiling for students. Our books, our art, the uniforms or dress codes we choose (or lack thereof), even the buildings we put them in: all of these communicate a tone or atmosphere to our students, especially the impressionable young ones. We must be thoughtful about what kind of tone we set, what kind of atmosphere we place them in. We must imagine our students as being able to appreciate and understand more than they currently do. Twaddle is the failure of the adult's imagination, which results in the failure to cultivate the child's imagination.

We do a disservice to our young students if we offer them nothing worthy of adulthood. Let our curriculum, as well as the art on our walls and even the architecture of our schools, be chosen with C.S. Lewis’s advice in mind: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” (from Of Other Worlds).

Further reading:

2. Freedom from Unclear Boundaries

In the cult classic “Office Space,” Jennifer Anniston’s character (a waitress) is reprimanded by her boss for wearing the bare minimum pieces of flair. “Okay, so you want me to wear more?” she asks. The manager scoffs. “Well, if you feel like the bare minimum is enough, then okay.” We are not surprised when he scolds her again later in the movie, prompting her to dramatically quit. I often think about this scene in my interaction with students. How often am I that manager? How often do I offer unclear boundaries, and then express frustration that my students do not feel the way I do? Do I balk when students ask “How long does this need to be?” As Andrew Pudua put it in an Institute for Excellence in Writing seminar, a student asking “how many paragraphs does this need to be?” is not being slothful; he is asking us to clarify what kind of assignment we are asking for. There is wisdom here that applies to more than writing.

This holds true just as much in other boundaries and rules. “Do not get into the creek!” I tell a group of boys. Naturally, they go right up to the edge of the creek. Do I raise my voice here? I shouldn’t: they are actually respecting my command. I gave the boundary of “no creek,” without which they would probably be in the creek. The temptation to scold them does not come from their actions, which align with my command, but from the difference in our desires or feelings. What I often mean is “share my feelings,” which they naturally do not, even if what I verbally say is “obey my limits”.

Aquinas offers a helpful distinction on our feelings or passions that teachers should make use of: antecedent passions, which are the feelings we humans cannot exercise much control over (like your immediate reaction to hearing bad news or stubbing your toe), and consequent passions, which are the feelings we have after we use our will and reason (such as working yourself up into an angry fit after the bad news, or letting yourself be cross with your spouse after stubbing your toe).

Far too often, to speak for myself, I am more impatient with my students' antecedent passions, which they cannot control, than for their deliberate actions, which they can. And by focusing on the latter, we teach them that they can control their lives. We choose what we do. By reprimanding them for the former, we provide for them a scapegoat of fatalism. “That teacher is mean.” “He just doesn’t like me.” etc. After all, we have little control over how we feel. And the control we do have is the result of our actions, which create habits, which inform our feelings. We should focus on the objective, the actions, rather than the subjective, the feelings or passions.

I do not mean to deny that some students have genuine attitude problems. Aquinas might tell us that these are consequent passions. These feelings are the result of repeated intentional actions, which have become habits; and these habits shape how we respond to the world around us, including how we respond to our authority figures. Yet the focus must still remain on the actions themselves, as they are the key to changing consequent passions. We choose actions, not feelings.

Thus, we must be very careful not to make an infraction a “heart issue” (a term I often heard from fellow grade school teachers at religious schools). After all, I cannot tear open anyone’s soul—especially one so frequently inscrutable as a child—and gaze into their innermost thoughts, desires, and motivations. We should let the infraction be dealt with as a failure of duty, a just and clear consequence be enforced–especially if it is the natural consequence of that action, and let bygones be bygones. As one seasoned head of school used to say, “If you assume rebellion, you’ll get it.” That is just as true of junior kindergarteners as it is of high school juniors.

Clear boundaries, like the example of the creek, provide our children the freedom to explore, to play, and to respect limits. As Chesterton said in Orthodoxy,

“We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

While Chesterton offered this analogy to orthodoxy itself, it fits just as well to the education of children. The school yard, with reasonable and clear boundaries fairly enforced, can be the training ground for freedom.

Further reading: Teaching with Love & Logic by Jim and Charles Fay

3. Freedom from Safetyism and Adult Intervention

“Sometimes, they just need to fight; you need to let them work it out.” You will not typically hear these words from a school administrator. But this is exactly what Joe Rhee, head of the Middle School at the all-boys Northridge Prep told me one day. He’s not talking about full-on fist fights, but about a shift in mindset that doesn’t view two boys pushing each other as the epitome of evil. Knowing when not to do anything, when you might be justified in intervening, is a particular form of prudence that Charlotte Mason dubbed “masterly inactivity” (a term borrowed from Thomas Carlyle).

We ought to do so much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we begin to think everything rests with us and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us. Our endeavours become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, 'late and soon.' We try to dominate them too much, even when we fail to govern, and we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education. (Mason, School Education)

In contrast to this fussiness, Mason recommends masterly inactivity, which “indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.” What are the results of a wise use of this virtue? Confidence. Small risks taken without censure, small games played with dignity, small fights and small resolutions: all of these add up in our children’s sense of independence.

Our own age of near omniscient and omnipresent overscheduling for our children stands in stark contrast to such a view. What are the consequences of constantly intervening in our children’s lives, and never granting them any small space to act freely? Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff succinctly connected the reliance on adult intervention with the rise of “woke” intolerance of opposing views, reliance on college administration to ensure their feelings of safety, and a pathological use of “vindictive protectiveness”:

The flight to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures were removed from playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student lunches. After the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, many schools cracked down on bullying, implementing “zero tolerance” policies. In a variety of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well. (from their original article in The Atlantic)

These authors dub this worldview “safetyism”. When we train students to tattle, to default to teacher intervention, to have parents intervene on their behalf in the classroom, and to have even their free time structured and monitored by a parent or even a professional, then we cultivate this very worldview which Lukianoff and Haidt describe.

Again, this is a matter of prudence: sometimes teachers or administrators must intervene, and parents must say “no”. But we cannot afford to rob children of every opportunity to invent, enforce, or even break their own rules at any level. We must offer our children the opportunity to learn from their decisions when the stakes are low (as Jim Fay from Love and Logic puts it).

Giving children freedom of any kind is a risk. The cost of taking a risk is, of course, the risk itself: it is a possible loss. The cost of never taking a risk is to never grow, to never experience adventure, to never snatch victory from defeat: it is a guaranteed loss, and of the gravest kind. Prudence must weigh the risk, but not banish it.

One winter, I pushed our headmaster to let my middle school students sled down a rather impressive hill on the school’s property which had hitherto been prohibited. Finally, she let me do it: I took my students out to sled, and they were rapturous. I gave them an extra 30 minutes of my class to enjoy the hill. One plucky 6th grade girl managed speeds to rival the older boys… until she fractured her arm at the bottom of the hill. She never cried, never made a fuss, and even though she had to leave immediately, she never wanted to show off her injury after returning the next day. Years later, I asked her about it, and she told me, “Mr. Ayers, don’t you see? We had just earned that privilege. If I made a fuss about it, they might have taken it away! I didn’t want to do that to my friends.” She would have made Seneca proud.

As teachers and parents, it is easy to let ourselves imagine the worst of what could happen, of what could be lost. It is harder to imagine the best, to imagine what could be gained.

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’ ‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this.”

Further reading: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Roxaboxen by Barbara Cooney

4. Freedom from Being Screened-in

The last freedom I would offer is in fact the first and the simplest freedom of all: the freedom to go outside, to wander and wonder, to escape the confinement of four walls. A day in the woods is an education in itself, and it is an opportunity lost if our schools do not avail themselves of such an education.

Few aspects of our childhood naturally fit themselves to the stages of our development more so than nature itself. It is easy for a two-year old to fall off of a playground–ironically designed for safety–and thus hurt themselves (“No sweetie, you cannot play on that playground; it is only rated for children 6 and up. Sit quietly with me instead,” said no sane parent of more than one child, ever.) But a pine tree cannot be climbed by that toddler. The older siblings will climb the tree. The two-year old will pick daisies and dandelions at the bottom. She will find adventure and fun at her level–literally, for she will grab only what's in her reach.

This is an education in the supremely real: an endless catalog of the images of reality. Nature does not need your approval, though she freely offers you her beauty. Nor does she seek your pardon when you prick yourself on a thorn. Children are naturally egoists; they are limited in their vision because they think the universe revolves around themselves. But one cannot long remain egocentric in a forest.

Ideally, this adventure into nature features frequent unstructured time: a creek, some woods, a prairie, or best yet, a farm. Very few schools have such an opportunity–and should one present itself to a board of directors, they should capitalize on it if at all possible. But there are ways to treat our nature deficit disorder with supplements. Day trips to a farm or natural landmark are helpful, especially if they become a tradition each year built into the school’s culture; the more routine, the better.

Equally important as escaping the confines of four walls is escaping the confines of a screen. “But wait!” I can hear my objectors begin, “aren’t you advocating freedom? What’s free about restricting how they spend their free time? Or how they can learn in a classroom?”

In order to respond to this idea (the idea that freedom would mean less restrictions on screen time, not more) I have to make an analogy: is the fentanyl addict free? In what ways is his will being coerced in his present state? Is he more rational, more independent, more able to choose between competing goods than a man who is not a fentanyl addict? We see here a paradox: that freedom must mean a lack of restriction in order to be meaningful, but that restriction can be both external (in the form of rules) and internal (in the form of dependence). A drug addict or alcoholic is less free than a man who successfully finishes rehab and avoids relapse. Indeed, the man entering rehab is seeking freedom–and is willing to undergo restriction to win it. He is willing to suffer external restriction to win internal freedom.

This analogy may be melodramatic, but the distinction applies just as much to a child’s screentime as to an addict's drug of choice. We must be very careful to avoid addiction and dependence, especially as games and streaming videos are tailor made to latch and lock children’s attentions. Children, whose habits of attention are so fragile, so easily broken by stimuli, should be guarded from external entanglement.

Remember, this is not primarily an issue of content: of what kind of videos or games our young children are playing. It is a matter of form: it is that our children are playing games or watching videos. The dangers of addiction are latent in both the “good” content as well as the “bad”. Be vigilant, for your adversary, the market research group, prowls about Disney+ and the Apple Store as a roaring app, seeking whatever childish minds it may devour.

Words sometimes take on a life of their own: they tell a story that we may not even intend. Writer Paul Kingsnorth once pointed out the rather ironic names we have assigned to the technological wonders of our age: the net, the web, the screen. Things that ensnare, entrap, or block.

And so I return to my recommendation: to take our students out of the walls that confine us, be they made of drywall and 2x4s, or glass and pixels. After all, as Robert Frost once wrote:

Something there is in us that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.

Further reading:

iGen by Jean Twenge

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

Shane Ayers has taught for the past 12 years in grades ranging from 6th to 12th grade. Currently, he teaches English, Logic, Philosophy, and Woodshop at Northridge Preparatory School in Niles, Illinois. He previously served as a research assistant for Bill Bennett's Book of Man, and has worked in development, curriculum, and has served on the board of directors for private and Catholic schools. He and his wife Teresa are converts to the Church, and somehow manage to fit their 7 children in their 100 year old fixer-upper home.



Quiz for Parents:

How "Catholic" is your child's

Catholic school?

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