The funnel–keeping freedoms age-appropriate

The funnel is one of the best and perhaps most infamous analogies offered by the Ezzos. The funnel represents the freedoms you allow your child given his age. The funnel represents the guidance and boundaries you give your child. The Ezzos implore us to parent inside the funnel.

“A common mistake is to parent outside the funnel in the early years. In an effort to give the child confidence, parents sometimes allow their children behaviors or freedoms that are neither age-appropriate nor in harmony with the child’s moral and intellectual capabilities,” (On Becoming Childwise, p. 155).

What this means is that you consciously choose what freedoms are appropriate given your child’s age and maturity. You don’t allow a freedom that your child cannot be responsible for. You don’t allow a freedom that you will one day have to take away. You don’t allow your child to choose for himself what freedoms are appropriate.

How do you know if a behavior is outside the funnel?
This is very simple. Watch your child. Keep your eye out for behaviors that seem beyond his age level. If it bothers you that he exhibits a particular behavior, there’s a reason it bothers you. Listen to that intuition. If it bothers you, don’t allow it. Ask yourself if he does any of the following:

  • Enters any room of the house at will
  • Gets food from the pantry whenever he wants
  • Ransacks his room with little regard or respect for its contents
  • Puts up a fight about wearing the shorts and tank top even though it’s 40 degrees out
  • Insists that he eat cereal instead of eggs for breakfast
  • Climbs out of his crib or playpen even when told to stay put
  • Speaks disrespectfully to any adult, particularly you and your spouse
  • Leaves your side in public without informing you
  • Goes into the backyard without asking

These are just a few examples of a young child who is acting outside the funnel. He has been allowed freedoms that are not age-appropriate. Some of these freedoms are perhaps appropriate for a teenager. If your 2-year-old is exhibiting them, he is clearly outside the funnel.

Why should you limit your child’s freedoms?
There is nothing wrong with allowing your child to have some freedoms, as long as they are age-appropriate. For example, allowing your 3-year-old to choose his own toys is possibly a freedom he can be responsible for. If he plays with them appropriately and can take care of them by putting them away when he’s done, it is an age-appropriate freedom. Also consider whether he is characterized by respecting his property. If he consistently ransacks his room during roomtime, perhaps the toys or the room itself are freedoms he doesn’t have the responsibility to have.

Consider this. A group of researchers performed a study on a group of students to see how they would react if they took away the fences that lined the perimeter of the school. When the fences were up, the children would play freely, far away from the school buildings and even linger around the fence. When the fences were taken down, the students huddled much closer to the school buildings. The students felt more secure when those fences were up. Without the limits that the fences established, they were unsure as to how far they should go. The same goes with setting limits for your child. The more you set limits, the more secure your child will feel.

Also important is the fact that setting limits and parenting inside the funnel is yet another way to establish parental authority over your child. If your child defers to you to determine what he is allowed to say and do, he is much more likely to respect your authority.

But perhaps the reason that most interests you is the fact that limiting your child’s freedoms will improve his behavior and reduce your frustration.

How will this affect your child’s behavior?
Keeping your child inside the funnel and only allowing freedoms that are age-appropriate is huge in keeping his behavior in check. I mentioned that it builds your parental authority. Beyond this, it teaches your child that he does not have 100% freedom over his environment and his actions. Could this stifle his independence? Yes, it could. This is why you need to let your child grow into the wider parts of the funnel as he matures. But if he is right where he should be in the funnel, he will have much greater control over his own actions.

Think about the examples I gave above. The reason these freedoms are not age-appropriate for a 2-year-old is that a child that age does not have the moral or practical knowledge that accompanies those freedoms. A toddler does not understand the science of nutrition and wouldn’t know that a bowl of sugary cereal is less healthy than a breakfast of eggs and toast. Nor does he understand that the resulting sugar high would adversely affect his behavior.

This lack of moral and practical knowledge can be applied to many of the behaviors I listed. As you limit your child’s freedoms according to his age and understanding, his behaviors will improve quite immediately. Perhaps you get frustrated that your toddler climbs the stairs on his own. Once you remove that freedom, that frustration will disappear. Perhaps you get frustrated that your preschooler goes outside on his own. Once you remove that freedom, or at least require that he ask permission, that frustration will disappear. Imagine how peaceful your home can be.

Funnel utopia
Let me describe what it looks like when your child firmly knows his boundaries inside the funnel.

  • When your child wakes up in the morning, he dresses himself in the clothes you have laid out for him.
  • If he happens to wake up when you’re still sleeping, he stays in his room and plays quietly until you wake up.
  • He washes his hands when you ask and eats the food that is placed in front of him, no matter what dish it’s in.
  • After taking his dishes to the kitchen, he asks permission to play in the backyard and will abide by any instructions you give about outside play.
  • He knows that certain rooms in the house are off-limits.
  • He puts his toys away after playing with them.
  • He stays within your line of sight, as you have requested, in public places.
  • He keeps his hand on the shopping cart as you have asked, no matter how much he hates grocery shopping.
  • He goes to bed (and stays there) peacefully and quietly every night.

Does this all sound too good to be true? These are things that my 4-year-old son William is characterized by doing on a consistent basis. This utopia is a reality in my home. Did this happen on its own overnight? Certainly not. It required diligent parenting on my part. If you apply the same amount of diligence, while considering many of the other aspects of preventing misbehavior, your home can also look like this.

Start thinking through your child’s freedoms and strongly consider whether he has freedoms that you need to take away. In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about some of the common pitfalls parents run into when keeping their children’s behaviors inside the funnel.

Watch your tone

We may often tell our kids to watch their tone, but this is something we need to do as parents as well. It may seem obvious, but barking orders at our kids never works as well as speaking nicely and using a positive voice to get our kids to do what we need them to do.

Use positive words
It is always best to tell your child what you want him to do rather than what you want him not to do. When you tell him what not to do, he may honestly not know what the better alternative is. So rather than telling your child not to run in the mall, tell him he needs to walk next to you while holding your hand or putting one hand on the stroller. Read more about this in my post on non-conflict training.

In addition to using positive words, explain with a few words why you are asking him to do something. Explaining to your child why he needs to wash his hands is far better than simply barking an order at him to do so. Consider the difference between the following:

Bad: Put your shoes on.
Good: William, we’re going for a walk. Now go put your shoes on.

Bad: Get in bed.
Good: William, it’s time for bed. Go hop in so I can read to you.

Bad: Eat your broccoli.
Good: It may not smell or look great, but broccoli is really good for your body. It will make you healthy and strong. At the very least, you must have one “no thank you bite”.

My one caution with this is that you don’t want to be explaining so much to your child that he thinks he has the power to negotiate with you. It’s fine to tell him you are going for a walk and that he needs to put his shoes on. It’s not okay for him to say he doesn’t want to go for a walk so he doesn’t need to put his shoes on, and thus defying your command.

Use praise and encouragement
While you should always praise your child for a job well done, you should also use praise and encouragement when telling him to do something. For example:

Bad: Put your cup on the counter.
Good: You are always so good at remembering to put your dishes on the counter. Don’t forget your cup.

Bad: Go get a diaper for your brother.
Good: You are such a good helper for mommy. Please run upstairs and grab a diaper for your brother.

Bad: What does this letter say?
Good: You do such a great job sounding out your letters. Let’s see what sound this letter says.

Always make sure your praise is valid. If he consistently fights with you to brush his teeth, you don’t want to tell him that he is good at it. And don’t praise him 3,000 times a day. You want your praise to be valid and given in small doses so it doesn’t become inflated and meaningless.

Be specific
Find a way to be specific in your instructions to your child. If you want him to clean up his toys, tell him to put the cars in the car bin. Once he’s done that, have him put his books on the shelf. Telling him to clean up is too vague and too big of a job for him to compartmentalize on his own. Break it down for him and he will comply much more willingly.

Also figure out whether he truly understands what you’re saying. Getting William to pre-school can be a stressful time for us. It’s not uncommon for us to be running a little behind. I’ll tell him to hurry and that we’re running late. Recently, it occurred to me that he didn’t equate running late with moving faster. So I told him, “William, we’re running late. That means move faster!” And he did. That’s all it took. I stopped stressing. And we got to school on time.

Use your imagination
Starting around age 3, your child’s imagination will begin to flourish. Rather than lining his cars up in a row, he will drive them through a makeshift tunnel (made of a paper towel tube). Rather than squeezing his toy duck in the bath, he will have it “swim” in the water. As your child enters this phase, you will want to follow his lead and let your own imagination grow, too. This is important so that you can play with him, but also so you can use it to your advantage. Use his imagination (and yours) to get him to do what you want him to do.

The one caveat to this is that you still want your child to obey your word simply because you are his parent and you are his authority figure. To use your imagination to get him to do what you want might seem like coaxing or cajoling him when you simply want him to obey. This is certainly important, but you should always consider alternatives. If you find yourself barking orders at him constantly, try finding a fun and creative way to explain to him what you want him to do. You’ll find that he is much more likely to obey and everyone will be happier for it.

Have fun
While we should always fulfill our role as our child’s teacher, we should also consider the importance of having fun with our kids. Whether that means sitting down with your child to play Candyland or racing to the top of the stairs, always allow for a dose of fun in your daily interactions with your child. Starting around age 3-4, your child is beginning to form memories he will hold for the rest of his life. Make those memories positive ones.

“Okay?”

It’s a simple word. It’s universal and is used in many different languages. It’s casual and comfortable. But I recommend you remove it from your and your child’s vocabulary. Here’s why.

Don’t use “okay” when giving an instruction
There are two problems with a parent using the word “okay”. First, it is often used at the end of an instruction, which turns the instruction into a request.

Instruction: Evan, clean up your room.
Request: Evan, clean up your room, okay?

Instruction: Sophia, mommy needs you to wash your hands before dinner.
Request: Sophia, wash your hands for mommy, okay?

If you really want your child to respect your authority and obey your instructions, you must not phrase them in the form of a question. When a child hears your inflection go up or hears that “okay” at the end of an instruction, he truly thinks you are asking him whether he agrees or not. He thinks he has the option to say no. Don’t give him that option.

You will also want to be cautious when saying “please” when you give an instruction. It is certainly polite and you want to model polite speech for your child, but you need to be sure you use an authoritative tone when you use the word.

Good: Evan, please put your toys away.
Bad: Evan, put your toys away, please?

Good: Sophia, please share your ice cream with your brother.
Bad: Sophia, share your ice cream with your brother, please?

If you’re not sure whether you sound authoritative when using “please,” don’t use it when giving an instruction. Model polite speech for him at other times of the day. Save it for later when you ask a simple request like pass the salt. Or if you do honestly have a request (not an instruction) for your child, say “please” then.

Don’t use “okay” when answering your child
Here is another time when you will not want to use the word “okay.” Whether your child asks you for a glass of milk or wants to watch TV, you are far better off saying “yes” or “yes, you may” than “okay.” In these cases, the word “okay” can have an ambiguous tone. Your “okay” could sound like, “alright, I don’t really want to agree, but you’ve convinced me.” You never want your child to believe he has the power to convince you to do something you don’t want to do.

You also want to avoid using “okay” in this instance because you want to model polite speech for your child. You want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy” or “yes, daddy” so give him the same courtesy. Here’s how it works in my house:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Yes, William?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Yes, you may. Go find the remote and I will turn it on for you.”

It does not sound like this:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Huh?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Okay.”

Do you see how the first example is more polite? It is also more authoritative and respectful.

Don’t allow your child to use “okay”
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, you will want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy.” He will do so in two instances: 1) when you first call his name, and 2) after you give an instruction to show he will comply. You should not allow an “okay” in either case.

You should also discourage the use of “okay” when you are having a general conversation. If you ask him how school went or how he feels about a particular situation, he shouldn’t reply with “okay.” You should require him to think it over and reply with a complete answer. When we answer someone with an “okay” we are telling them we don’t value the question and don’t want to put any effort or thought into our answer. Now, if your child says he doesn’t feel like talking about a particular subject right then and tells you why, you may allow that. But don’t allow him to brush you off by answering your questions with an “okay.”

It might take constant effort on your part to remove the word “okay” from your vocabulary, but it will be well worth the effort. After a week or two, it will become second nature.