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Over My Shoulder #34: on parenting a free and autonomous child, from Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from chapter 21 of Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World (1973).

Raising the Child

As early as possible, it’s valuable to establish relationships with your child that are similar to the relationship you have with your lover.

The child should have his own world where he is clearly the sovereign. That means a room of his own that is subject to his control alone. If he doesn’t take care of it, he’ll learn the consequences of that sooner or later. But if he’s forced to keep it as his parents wish, he’ll never discover for himself the consequences of alternative courses of action.

He should also have other property to use in whatever way he chooses. Property isn’t owned if it can be used only in approved ways.

You’ll have to decide how he’ll obtain his property. He can earn it, receive an allowance, get outright gifts, or he can receive property in any combination of these ways.

But once he receives something, it’s important that he learn to understand what it means to own something and be responsible for its preservation. He shouldn’t be taught to expect automatic replacement of any of his property that he might destroy.

The importance of his sense of ownership can be seen by observing the difficulties many adults have in dealing with the world. For close to two decades, most people are led to believe that they aren’t sovereign.

Then, suddenly, they’re thrust out into the world, and expected to make far-reaching decisions concerning their lives. It’s no wonder that they have difficulty foreseeing the consequences of their actions and fall back on any authority that appears to be competent to make decisions for them.

I believe the child will be far better equipped to face the world if he understands how the world operates right from the beginning. He can easily learn what it means to make decisions and to experience the consequences of his decisions.

This means, too, that he should be helped to understand that you have your property, also. Show him which areas are off limits to him or require permission before he can use them. Even the dining table he eats on will belong to someone; part of his arrangement with the owner can include table privileges.

Obviously, a two-year-old child won’t have an explicit understanding of these matters. But there are two ways that he can understand them at the earliest possible age. One is that he can learn by example if the entire family operates in this way.

The second way is by never being taught otherwise. For some reason, many parents seem to think it important to change systems at some point in a child’s age. They first teach him he has no authority over his life, and then try later to instill a sense of responsibility in him. In the same way, they first want him to believe that Santa Claus loves and rewards him and then later want him to understand that it’s the parents who love him. I think it would make a considerable difference if the child were never taught anything that you intend to reverse later.

It’s important that each of the three of you be a separate human being with his own life, his own interests, and his own property. None of you is living for the benefit of the others; rather, each should be there because he wants to be. And each will want to be there if it’s a setting where he can live a meaningful life of his own choosing.

It obviously isn’t necessary that each member of the family own his own washing machine, stove, and living-room furniture; nor is it necessary for permission to be requested every time a non-owner wants to use something. Various things can be made available to other members of the household on a till further notice basis. But the ultimate ownership should never be in doubt.

If these principles don’t seem attractive to you, it may be because you’ve never been married. You may never have seen the hundreds of insignificant joint decisions that preoccupy most married people.

I’ve never known a family who used these principles who didn’t find them a great relief and advantage over normal ways of handling such matters.

A Sovereign Child

If you want your child to understand that he lives in a world in which his future will be of his own making, encourage that by letting him deal directly with the world as much as possible. Let him experience the consequences of his own actions.

Naturally, you don’t intend to let him discover first hand a very dangerous consequence of something he wants to do. But it’s important to deciade in advance where you will draw the line. How far will you let him go in making his own decisions? Don’t leave it to decide each time the matter arises. Have a clearly defined policy in advance that will prevent inconsistencies.

Be available to let him know your opinions–without implying that your opinions are binding on him. Let him think of you as a wiser, more experienced person–but not as a moral authority who stands in the way of his living his own life.

Be a source of information and opinion concerning the consequences of acts. Let him learn that the nature of the world he lives in (not the attitudes of people bigger and smarter than he is) sets the limits on what he can and cannot do in the world.

If you recognize him as an individual who is allowed to learn for himself, a genuine friendship can develop between you. He’ll be willing to talk to you about his ideas, plans, and problems–because he won’t have to fear the moral retribution that most parents inflict when they disagree with their children’s ideas and actions.

Parents who fear letting their children make decisions fail to realize that their children do make decisions on their own. You can’t possibly control all your child’s actions. So the best security you can have comes from two conditions: (1) allowing the child to learn as early as possible that his actions have consequences to him; and (2) developing a friendship that will make it possible for him to come to you when he needs help.

If either of these conditions is missing, you shouldn’t be surprised if you find out about crises only after they’ve happened. A child who knows that acts have consequences and who knows that he has a wise friend will be more likely to consult his friend before risking something dangerous.

Love and understanding are important to a child. And you’ll show your love more by respecting his individuality and appreciating him for what he is, not for what you force him to be.

–Harry Browne (1973), How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, pp. 240–243

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  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-11 – For your reference: Rothbard against the Fugitive Child Act:

    […] GT 2007-04-30: Over My Shoulder #34: on parenting a free and autonomous child, from Harry Browne, Ho… […]

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