Tag Archives: rules

My all-time favourite parenting guideline: freedom is a privilege to be earned

yellow sky“May I have a cellphone?”

“Can I have a Facebook account?”

“My friends are going to the mall alone — can I go too?”

All of these requests have one thing in common: freedom. They are each small increments of freedom from parental control. In each case there are potential risks; they all imply a level of trust.

As parents, we need to make decisions about what our kids can handle, and balance them with the things that can go wrong — and right. And when parents ask my advice on what the right answers are for many of these things at different ages, I suggest one overall guideline:

Freedom is a privilege to be earned through the demonstration of consistent, good judgement and behaviour. 

That means that the child who regularly gets his homework done without a fuss after dinner should probably be allowed to watch TV (or play a video game or whatever is agreed). The child who makes healthy choices should be allowed to pack her own lunch for school. The teenager who checks in regularly when she’s out with her friends, respects her curfew and answers her cellphone when you call may be ready for additional incremental steps of freedom.

Each freedom suggests its own rules: the cellphone must be kept charged and answered when you call. It can’t be used in school in violation of school rules. Usage can’t exceed agreed upon limits for talking and texting. They need to review their text messages with a parent from time to time.

The teen who wants to borrow the family car needs to follow the rules of the road, keep it clean and gassed up. Never drink and drive.

And so on.

What about when kids break the rules? Because that’s going to happen. Testing limits is part of growing up, after all.

When my kids break the rules, we discuss what it means. Usually, there is some backpedaling on their freedom for some time: the iPad that isn’t supposed to be used after lights out gets put back downstairs in the kitchen charging station where it used to go. The weekly Facebook page reviews with mom or dad that have fallen by the wayside become a part of our routines once again.

And as they  demonstrate good judgement over time, we continue to offer back those increments of freedom and independence.

Yes, it does sound like common sense. Most parents practice this in one form or another. But the critical thing is to explain the underlying logic to your kids. They need to see the cause and effect logic in their behaviours and privileges.

They also need to understand that if we choose to let them go downtown alone with their friends (or go on a date, or walk to school by themselves), it’s because they’ve earned our trust over time.

And since you know your own kids, you can help decide when they are ready for the responsibilities that come with each freedom. One child may be able to handle her own Facebook account at 12; another may need to wait until they are older. There is no magic age when kids are ready.

Those freedoms aren’t doled out like random rewards — they are their due for playing by our rules.

Parenting pledges for a great school year

This morning, my 12-year-old twins had their very first morning of high school. My youngest would be starting third grade if it weren’t for the fact that she had a really high fever last night (score an extra day of summer for her, an extra day of childcare for me).

Like many families, we are in serious back-to-school mode. Supplies, uniforms, clothing and new shoes have been purchased. Items have been labelled. Student bus passes are ready to go. Desks have been organized. Backpacks are packed.

It’s a lot of work, and a fair bit of expense. But it’s also very exciting, a time to reflect on transitions and growing up. It’s made me think about the kind of parent I want to be to my kids, especially now that they are entering their teenage years.

So I’ve come up with a list of back-to-school resolutions. My intentions are good, but my will and patience are not perfect, so I fully intend these more as a set of self-imposed guidelines, and not an iron-clad code. I find it useful to have these kind of things to look up to, especially in the darker moments of parenting (and we all know what those are like!).

Know when to say no, and when to say nothing. Sometimes the word “No” has to be enough. I don’t have to justify all of my parenting decisions to my kids, and what passes for explanation is really their attempt to negotiation. If I think those shorts are too short, or they are too young for a school dance, or they’ve been Skyping for too long, that’s all I need to say.

Conversely, sometimes I need to bite my tongue. They don’t need to hear my opinion of everything. They don’t always want to know what it was like when I was 12 (really? That’s a shocker). I don’t need to pass along my issues from adolescence. This is their turn.

Take advantage of natural consequences, when appropriate. I’m a big fan of Barbara Coloroso. When my kids were toddlers, I went to hear her speak, and was particularly impressed by her adamant insistence on kids learning things for themselves. As long as it isn’t immoral, illegal or unhealthy, they’ll learn more from their own mistakes than our rules or lectures.

Let them go outside without their jacket and realize how cold it is.  Let them goof off instead of studying for a test and get a bad mark. Let them forget their lunch and go hungry for one day. It may sound harsh, but none of those things are immoral, illegal or unhealthy. The stakes aren’t particularly high and the consequences are tolerable and contained. If we do everything for our kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. And we are reduced to shrill, nagging parents. Sure, if any of these things become more than one-off problems, we need to step in with guidance and supervision, but most kids, most of the time, will quickly learn their lesson.  (Another amazing parenting book with this philosophy is The Blessing of a B Minus, by Wendy Mogel).

Set firm boundaries for technology use. How much screen time total can you (and they) tolerate. At what point does it eat into their time for exercise, family interrelationships, homework, sleep? A recent study found that one-third of American teens sleep with their cellphones by their bedside or under their pillows, and text well after their bedtimes. Many said they set the phones to vibrate so they will wake them without alerting their parents. Phones, laptops, iPads should all be outside of their bedrooms when they go to sleep. Teens already have enough issues with sleep without this extra distraction.

Get them to eat breakfast. This is one of the hardest pledges to keep. My older girls are simply not hungry in the morning. They feign nausea at the mere sight of food. Chalk it up to their adolescent circadian rhythms or their natural metabolisms, but I struggle to get anything into them at all. Going to school hungry pretty much guarantees a lack of energy and focus for the first couple of hours, so that’s no OK. We’ve tried smoothies, Greek yogurt, cereal.

Out of desperation, I’ve given up on my usual insistence on whole-grains, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugars. I find myself buying the crappy processed crap that used to make me all self-righteous at the grocery store, like “What kind of parent would serve that to their precious children?”

Me, that’s who.

At this point, even Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes are looking pretty good. If they want pizza or a chicken sandwich, fine. My minimum requirement is a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and a cereal bar.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for now. I’m sure I will stumble a few times (feel free to call me on it, but remember that thing about people living in glass houses…). I’m sure there will be more pledges necessary. What resolutions do you make in your household?


Two 12-year-olds + two iPad2s = infinite distractions

all I see of them these days

My older girls, twins about to turn 12, were lucky enough to get brand new, freshly minted iPad2s from their great-aunt and uncle on the occasion of their bat mitzvah. It’s pretty safe to say that the arrival of these gadgets this past weekend was one of the high points of their young lives. They barely slept the night before, spoke about them incessantly, researched apps, games and features.

My husband and I figured they were ready for this leap of independence, since they are pretty good, easygoing kids with strong grades and are voracious readers. Plus, the high school they will be starting in September highly recommends each kid have their own iPad2s for homework assignments and the like. Coupled with a bluetooth keyboard, it’s a relatively affordable starter laptop.

The first day they had them, we gave in to their excitement and let them spend hours setting them up and playing them. They added Facebook, Angry Birds and loads of other entertainment-related stuff, but they also used an iTunes gift card from a friend to add GarageBand, and have spent lots of time composing songs, which is kind of cool.

We normally impose a 30-minute time limit on non-productive screen time, which includes playing games, chatting on Facebook or playing with the DSi or Wii. If they are doing something creative (say, working on a novel or creating animation) or homework, that isn’t generally limited. (Unless it’s a gorgeous day outside and they are still in their pyjamas staring at a screen at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, in which case we flip out and order them to log out or unplug and get their butts outside.) But last weekend, we figured we’d let them get their initial excitement about the iPads out of their systems so we could resume our normal lives.

Yup. We are that naive, even after all these years of parenting.

It’s safe to say that adding these tablet computers into our family lives has added more complications than it has solved problems. I thought that the girls would argue less, since there were no longer three of them jostling for one computer. Nope. Now their almost 8-year-old sister engages in endless, fruitless negotiation for a few golden minutes with one of her sisters’ new toys. Last night I’m pretty sure I heard her promise to give them every dessert she was ever going to get again for the rest of her life.

And they said no.

Controlling access to their screen time has also become considerably more difficult. They are small and portable and hard to supervise. I used to require Facebook to happen on my laptop in the kitchen where I could keep an eye on the screen and maintain a running conversation. Now they end up in their rooms surfing their friends’ homepages two hours after I thought they’d gone to sleep. The 30-minute limit has been stretched way past the breaking point. The amount of reading, or hanging out with other family members, or walking the dog has plummeted.

Now I kind of anticipated this. And I knew new ground rules would be needed. I just wasn’t sure what they’d be.

In our house, freedom is a privilege you earn by demonstrating responsibility and respect. That basic ground rule means that they know they can earn a gradual relaxation of our rules if they consistently show good judgment.

Here are some of the ones I’ve come up with so far:

-iPads stored outside their bedrooms after bedtime;

-surfing online happens in common areas;

-all iTunes purchases must be cleared by me, even if they are covering the cost with a gift card;

-30-minute limit re-imposed, meaning they need to be pleasantly accountable to me when I inquire what they are up to (no visible eye-rolling, no snarky answers, no whining, pleading or shouting);

-fighting with anyone on anything iPad-related means an automatic, temporary suspension of access.

I’ll let you know how this goes, but I’d welcome any suggestions of rules you’ve set for your kids when it comes to computers, iPods, mobile phones, Wii’s, etc, and how those are working out.