MANSFIELD — As children get older, they often want to explore the world around them on their own, but how much exploration should a parent give to a child?
Parker Huston, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, weighed in on the matter, sharing his insight both professionally and as a parent himself.
RICHLAND SOURCE: Are children just as entitled to privacy as adults are?
HUSTON: Ah, that’s a loaded question to start off. I mean, what I would say is that the right to privacy depends on the age and developmental level. And parents have a responsibility to raise independent, self-reliant, critical thinking, problem solving children. So some kids pick that up at an earlier age and they probably should be given more independence and privacy, whereas other kids haven’t earned that right. In other words, I don’t think that there’s a children’s Bill of Rights that includes social media privacy or the ability to lock their door at a certain age—that every kid no matter what they’ve done leading up to that point can just point to this rule that says, ‘You must leave me alone now.’
RICHLAND SOURCE: Speaking of the development stages, is there an age range you would say a kid should be more monitored?
HUSTON: I think of it more as a continuum where, instead of there being an age where all of a sudden you go from being totally dependent on people to being independent and self-reliant, that parents can target specific types of independence and types of responsibilities that they can give their children. Things like choosing outfits is a great example where there comes a time where parents stop having a say over whether they wear the matching pants with the matching shirt they bought for the first day of school. But there are limits to that, and every parent has their sort of structures as far as making it appropriate… I think it depends on how quickly they pick up that level of maturity to be able to problem solve and accept that there are limits to responsible behavior.
RICHLAND SOURCE: So how can parents make a child ready to gain that freedom?
HUSTON: One of the things that’s hard as a parent is that we always are going to compare our child to what other children are doing. But it’s not an analogous, it’s not the same because the world is different than it was 30 years ago, and it’s the same thing for our parents. Whatever generation we’re in, our parents had to raise us in a different world than how we are raising our children. And so, applying the exact same rules that you had either positively or negatively doesn’t really work, and that’s going to cause a lot of frustration.
So I would say the biggest topics to focus on are teaching kids that they have an internal locus of control, so we should teach them that they have a say in what goes on in their lives, but there are limits to that. Our job is to provide structure and guidance for them at the same time. So instead of just saying, “Where do you want to go today?’ say ‘You have these three options of where to go today,’ and praising their effort and accepting their mistakes when they make them. I think it’s really easy to chastise when a child makes a bad decision or makes a mistake that leads to some repercussion rather than praising their effort and saying, ‘I see what you were trying to do, let me help provide you some guidance for how to do it differently next time.’
RICHLAND SOURCE: How often do you see it where a parent who’s been raised under a strict household does the exact opposite with their child? And have you seen a parent continue to be more strict like their parents were?
HUSTED: Absolutely. I think we see it both ways and sometimes we see a balance of the two. There’s sort of like a nature vs nurture question there where people who are raised with parents who might be of a more strict and rigid mindset are likely to be that way genetically and have those types of thought processes. So liking order and liking predictability—those aren’t bad things, those are just qualities of certain human beings. And so some people may grow up to think, ‘Yeah I like how that functioned for me and I like how that taught me to behave growing up, and so I’m going to apply that.’ Whereas for other adults that was really difficult for them growing up, and maybe it was applied too strictly. Or maybe it wasn’t their personality style and they really struggled with that type of mindset, and so they might swing to the far other end of the spectrum.
But I always point out to parents that neither end of that spectrum is ideal or the perfect way to parent someone. There’s a variation in how kids can be parented effectively. Parents with lots of rules and regulations can be really effective parents, and parents without as many rules and regulations can also be really effective parents. So, it’s really how you apply it and whether you respond to the specific needs of your children rather than your own personal style and what makes you feel good.
RICHLAND SOURCE: What advice do you give to children going through this issue where they want more independence?
HUSTED: Often, I’m working simultaneously with parents and kids, and so when we’re in the office talking about it, especially when they get older, those conversations come up a lot because I’m encouraging many of the parents to set more firm guidelines in certain areas that are problems. Then, when the child reacts negatively or they’re upset about it, we talk about what control they have over the situation. It’s my job to try and help parents find that balance of, ‘I’m going to set limits for you, but I’m also going to give you as much freedom as I can to make your own decisions and to live with the consequences both positive and negative of those choices.’
RICHLAND SOURCE: You were talking about both sides having extremes. How can they negatively affect a child?
HUSTED: Parenting styles that don’t allow for critical thinking, decision making and problem solving seem like they work really well in the moment because you might have children who are obedient and follow all the rules and don’t “rock the boat” as they say in the home. That can feel really nice in the moment… but then you also realize when they grow up that they’re always going to be looking for people to tell them what to do, and they don’t develop those critical skills of taking in information for a difficult decision and being able to come up with it themselves. You might have your kids leaning toward being more dependent on others for their feelings of self-worth and success and decision making, and they just might be heavily reliant on other people… Whereas kids without boundaries sometimes have a really difficult time understanding that there are consequences to their actions and they might have a more difficult time feeling motivated to make important decisions in their life that would lead to success vs a lack of motivation.
Here are a few resources that parents can use:
On Our Sleeves: The On Our Sleeves movement, launched on World Mental Health Day 2018, is on a national mission to break the silence surrounding children’s mental health.
Growing Your Gratitude - A program, alongside the On Our Sleeves initiative, that adults can do with their children at home about how to recognize things to be thankful for and how to improve daily functioning during COVID-19.
The American Psychological Association - promotes the advancement, communication and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives.
The American Academy of Pediatrics - an organization of 67,000 pediatricians committed to the optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults.