Hands, Free

Recently I had a discussion with someone about parenting styles, and her description of mine was “hands-free.”

Though I understand the description, I actually don’t agree with its core. I’m not hands-free at all! I’m incredibly involved in my kids’ lives, both in the macro sense and in the day-to-day. My hands are very much on.

But my hands are holding theirs, not leashes. My hands are guiding, not stopping. They’re lifting, not pulling.

Let’s give an example. There are some parents who choose every meal – heck, every morsel – for their children. The parent chooses the meals, the snacks, etc., and the kids have zero input. They eat what they’re told to eat and they’re punished if they don’t. Compliance is mandatory. Truthfully, I think that’s a bad method.

But I also think the opposite is bad! The opposite might be called “hands-free,” and involves basically having no input as the parent into the diets of the kids. I see this more frequently than I wish were true: any demand from a kid for any food item (even things that only barely qualify as “food”) being given to the kid instantly and without discussion. Sugar by the bucket, snacks without a hint of nutritional value, no attention paid to scheduling, etc. They might stop their kids from eating literal rat poison, but that seems to be the limit.

My method is neither of those. My method involves neither utterly removing kids’ input from the equation nor yielding my own input from it. Instead, my method involves guided conversation.

I say this with absolute sincerity: all three of my children counted protein and vitamins in the first hundred words they could say. They knew what healthy food was. As they got older, they knew why healthy food was important. Why balanced meals and moderated sweets led to healthier lives and better moods. They know the costs of unhealthy foods – and that means the true costs, not fear-mongered ones. They know that a piece of candy isn’t going to make them sick. They know that two bowls of ice cream will.

My oldest is ten. She has her own money, she goes to the store by herself. She can buy food – even food I don’t want her to! – if she wants. I have no interest in the level of control it would take to make sure she never buys a Coke; the harm a soda inflicts pales in comparison to the level of damage done by that much helicoptering. Instead, by the time she had her own money and knew the way to the store by herself, I trusted that she knew enough about her own health and body (and enough about the value of money – kids may race to spend “free” money on junk, but they’re surprisingly more intelligent about the money they had to sweat to earn) to make good overall health choices.

One time she did come home with a Coke. I asked her about it, and she said she wanted to try it. (Note that she felt no need to hide this from me – she rightly understood that she wouldn’t face any sort of “punishment” for this choice, and as such was completely open with me.) She took two sips and put it in the fridge.

It was still there, untouched further, a week later. She said she hadn’t cared for it.

No, I’m not hands-free. In fact, I probably spend more time parenting, both overall and on any given moment, than the vast majority of other parents. I just spend that time with a different aim – my goal isn’t to minimize my own inconvenience, which sadly seems to be the primary motivating factor of a lot of parents out there. My goal is to train competent humans. Humans who can do things, figure things out, and succeed at things. My goal is to make their hands strong, capable, and free.

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