Dissecting Self-Restraint

I overheard in a store recently a man say to his wife that he didn’t want to buy anything for their daughter there because he wanted to “teach her restraint”.

Not so long ago I would have internally responded to that statement with a good amount of indignation, given my own evolving behaviour. (Actually, my indignation tended to be part “why doesn’t everyone think like me?!”, and part “I need role models for unschooling; why don’t more parents unschool?!”.) Nowadays I’m much better at clearly seeing why parents behave the way they do and letting it go – especially given the zillion mistakes I’ve made over the years – and at accepting that not everybody knows about or understands unschooling the way I’ve slowly come to understand it myself.

Anyway, I would like to discuss the issues I have with what this dad said in that moment.

First, what could this dad have meant by “restraint”? It’s possible he was looking to push his daughter towards “self-discipline” or “self-regulation”. These concepts can be defined as voluntarily following specific rules set by a parent/authority or the child herself. Sometimes those rules revere self-denial for (often vague) reasons, such as not eating certain foods because of perceived negative health effects. The trouble with the concept of self-regulation, though, is that it requires consistent adherence to (often arbitrary) rules, whether they make sense for the person at the time or not. This mindset deprives a child of the opportunity to choose for herself a course of action that best suits the situation, which in turn limits her learning and understanding about about life in general as well as about herself. This is why unschoolers generally value principles over rules; principles can guide our actions but are open-ended, allowing for choices in the moment, while rules confine us to a rigid way of seeing and thinking about the world, discouraging mindful decisions and the profound learning that comes from them.

Second, to me the idea of “teaching” a child restraint is really about manipulating her into not getting upset about being told ‘no’, specifically, or about disappointment in general, and is especially harmful to girls who today are still expected to keep their true feelings hidden. This restraint gives the dad a sense of control over his kid’s behaviour, and perhaps eases his conscience when he wants to say ‘no’ (especially if he doesn’t really have a good reason for doing so). And while it’s good, of course, to support a child through disappointment, deliberately causing the disappointment creates distrust in the parent/child relationship, effectively cancelling out any good done by the support. In fact, the relationship may be worse-off than it was before the parent-caused disappointment! And that’s to say nothing of the ignorance and egomania on the part of the parent who thinks that he alone is responsible for “teaching” his child self-restraint, as though children don’t have countless opportunities to learn to manage their more difficult emotions simply by living. I remember having to handle a lot of waiting, boredom, and disappointment as a child, and not only because of the adults’ need for convenience and control; I couldn’t control the weather, my birthday came only once a year, the laws of physics sometimes brought me a good deal of unhappiness, and often friends didn’t do what I wanted them to!

Another factor in the father’s “lesson” could be that he didn’t want to give his daughter something he felt was “undeserved”, maybe because of her behaviour earlier that day, or because she hadn’t earned it with chores, or it wasn’t a special occasion. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the idea of giving his daughter something she wanted just because she wanted it and he could give it to her. Giving could really be that easy for parents, but if it’s not the way they were raised, and they can’t see the situation with a more generous and loving perspective, that option might not just feel counter-intuitive*, but even impossible! And that limited thinking can also stem from the belief that giving a child what she wants makes her spoiled and unable to handle disappointment (neither of which is true, by the way).

To summarize, disappointment regularly shows up in the lives of people of all ages, and so does not need to be arbitrarily and/or artificially created for the so-called benefit of children (i.e. so that they learn “self-regulation”). Nor is it in the best interest of parents’ relationships with their children to initiate disappointment: Kids are intuitive enough to know when their parents could have avoided hurting them and didn’t, and that can be downright heart-breaking at the worst of times. And what loving parent would want to deliberately break his or her child’s heart?

*Here’s a link to a page that explains why “follow your heart” isn’t necessarily good advice in the context of unschooling: http://sandradodd.com/joyce/followyourheart.html

It’s amazing how much interpretation and discussion can come from one randomly overheard sentence, isn’t it? For more on the importance of words (and choosing them wisely), you can visit this page: http://sandradodd.com/words/words.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.