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“How can I help my 5yo feel more in control of her life”

Here’s my answer to a question on the Parenting Stack Exchange. I think it is thoughtful and worth sharing here. Plus, the moderators sometimes delete my answers.

Stan asks how he can “help” his five-year-old daughter “feel” more in control of her life.

He describes her as “extremely smart” but lies about her being “extremely independent”. It’s a lie because he should know that if she were independent he wouldn’t be asking about making her feel in control. He also asks how he can offer her independence further down, so he should know he’s contradicting himself. (Contrary to popular belief, a lie isn’t just an intentional statement of falsehood – it’s when you say something you should know to be false, per philosopher Elliot Temple. It’s when you’re not conscientious in communicating the truth.)

Stan’s daughter has had “a lot less free time” since starting school and he is imposing a fairly rigorous schedule on her:

School for the morning until 1pm, afternoons to play, 5pm dinner, 6-8pm bedtime. Saturdays are free, Sundays have church and a play date, and then afternoons free. 1-2 hours of screen time a week.

She does not like this schedule. “[S]he’s expressed a feeling of being out of control of her life. She said things like ‘I have no choice!’ or ‘when can I do what I want to do?!’.”

Stan imposes unchosen obligations such as “helping with the laundry” on his daughter and then wonders why she doesn’t like doing them. He somehow also seeks a way to make her feel more independent and in control of her life, yet rationalizes away the contradiction by claiming “we all need to get used to having obligations and doing things we don’t feel like doing […]”.

Here’s my answer. The footnote implicitly references an important concept I call regard for consent, which is again connected to conscientiousness.

It depends on what you really mean by the question.

If you literally mean, ‘how can my daughter BE in control of her life?’ (rather than just FEEL in control), there are several things you could do:

  1. You could pull her out of school. I’m guessing she’s in school against her will, like most children. If you don’t think that’s the case, ask yourself whether you would honor her desire to stop going to school if she expressed it (more on meaningful consent below).
  2. Stop imposing bedtimes.
  3. Stop imposing screen times.
  4. Stop taking her to church. Most children hate church – it’s mind-numbingly boring and teaches them to suspend reason in favor of mysticism. (It also exposes them to creepy people who are into kids. Best to avoid those environments.)
  5. Let her play for as long as she wants. You say, almost plaintively, “she has hours to play in the afternoons”, but time that’s filled with fun always passes by quickly. To her, having her playtime restricted feels arbitrary and cruel (because it is). Also keep in mind that playtime is the time she learns the most. It’s also the time she gets to freely pursue her interests. Letting her play for as long as she wants will go a long way to increasing her control over her own life. You write in a comment that you tell her “you’re free to play now until 5pm!” but that isn’t her being in control, that’s you being in control.
  6. Stop burdening her with ‘obligations’ like chores. Did she meaningfully agree1 to being responsible for those chores? I doubt it, in which case those are unchosen burdens. “There is a lot of grumbling and moaning and stamping of feet for these tasks.” Good.

She sounds good at communicating her desires and grievances. That’s an important skill for living a happy and healthy life. Giving her more control should be as easy as listening to her, taking her grievances seriously, and acting accordingly.

You say your schedule is necessary, and I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t be able to change it all at once. I don’t know your situation but maybe you and your wife are both at work during the day so somebody needs to watch her, in which case school seems like the only option. But you could still stop imposing screen times, bed times, chores, and dragging her to church.

You say “we all need to get used to having obligations and doing things we don’t feel like doing” – but that isn’t really true. Apart from paying taxes or being drafted, stuff like that, adults don’t typically have obligations they didn’t agree to. She will learn soon enough that life sometimes requires us to do things we don’t want, but it’s not necessary to hoist that on her now. Let her be a child.

If instead you mean, ‘how can I coax my daughter into thinking she has control while subjecting her to the same amount of control as before?’, then I cannot help you and you should rethink your approach.

1 Meaningful consent is difficult to determine, especially for children. Adults have created a world where children do not meaningfully get to say ‘no’, and children know this, so even an explicit ‘yes’ does not necessarily mean they fully consent. Meaningful consent involves counterfactuals and conscientiousness; one of the necessary conditions for consent is that you would back off is she asked you to (even if she never does), and that you’re sensitive to conditions and situations where she might feel a desire to ask you to back off but suppresses this desire, in which case you’d back off yourself without her asking you to.


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