Funnel Pitfall #2: You award freedoms based on age rather than responsibility

How many times have you said to your child, “When you’re four, you can go out back by yourself”? Or, “When you’re ten you can get your ears pierced”? Or even, “When you’re 16, you can drive a car”? We all say these things and perhaps even fulfill these promises, but I caution you against allowing freedoms based on your child’s age alone.

I remember getting my ears pierced when I was seven years old. Was there something special about that age? No. It just happened that my sister was dying to get her ears pierced and I suppose my mom figured she would kill two birds with one stone. My sister was plenty responsible for taking care of her ears, twisting the studs and applying rubbing alcohol every night. Did I do the same? No. I ended up in an urgent care clinic because the back of the earring got embedded in my ear lobe.

So what’s the lesson here? Award freedoms based on your child’s level of responsibility, not his age. Have your child prove to you that he is responsible for a certain freedom before you award it.

Let’s use the same example. Say your daughter has been asking to get her ears pierced. You tell her that she can get them pierced when she has shown you that she can be responsible for the freedom. Let her decide how she will prove that responsibility. Maybe she will walk the dog every morning. Maybe she will take good care of her other jewelry. The responsibility doesn’t necessarily need to relate to the freedom. It simply needs to show that she is responsible for other duties that would require the same level of responsibility as the freedom. If she forgets to walk the dog two days in a row, that shows you that she doesn’t have the consistency required for the daily care of newly pierced ears. You might want to see three weeks (or more) of consistent responsibility before you agree to the freedom.

When you consider responsibility over age, you might have a younger child who has the freedom to do something your older child does not. Your four-year-old son might have the responsibility to choose what he will wear in the morning, but your six-year-old daughter might not. Your daughter is likely much more interested in what she wears and might challenge your authority when you ask her to change or if you suddenly decide to choose her clothes for her. If your four-year-old son can handle changing his clothes when you ask without putting up a fuss, he is likely responsible enough for the freedom.

Now almost five, William is allowed to choose what he wears in the morning simply because it doesn’t matter to him what he wears. He chooses the shirt and pants that are on top. If I don’t like what he has chosen to wear and ask him to change, he will do so willingly.

Take the time to think through your child’s freedoms and ask yourself if he is truly responsible enough for the freedom. Does he whine and complain when you choose the wrong TV show for him to watch? Does he fuss when he isn’t allowed to brush his own teeth? Does he throw a fit when you tell him to ride his scooter instead of his bike? Perhaps these are freedoms and choices he shouldn’t be allowed to have.

Always, the true test of whether a child is responsible enough for a certain freedom is to take that freedom away. What happens? If he handles it well, he can be allowed the freedom. If he throws a fit and challenges your authority, it is clearly a freedom you need to take away until he is more responsible. He needs to show that he can submit to your authority and handle it graciously before he can be allowed the freedom.

Funnel Pitfall #1—You don’t house-proof your child

In my next few posts, I will discuss several pitfalls parents fall into when determining whether a freedom is age-appropriate or inside the funnel. The first pitfall is child-proofing your house instead of house-proofing your child.

Certainly, you want to child-proof your house to a certain extent. Cover the outlets. Lock up all medicines and cleaning products. Keep your child out of harm’s way. But rather than physically preventing access to every item in the house, you must teach your child what he can and cannot touch. You must house-proof your child.

The first step in house-proofing your child is prohibiting all items that he cannot use appropriately. Whether your child is able to use an item as it is intended determines whether it is age-appropriate and if he should have the freedom to use it. If your child is too young to know how to use something appropriately, it is outside the funnel for him at that particular age. Here are some obvious examples:

•    Your keys
•    Your cell phone
•    The stereo
•    The remote control
•    Your books
•    Your computer

What’s the harm in letting your child play with these objects? Just because he can’t hurt himself with it or hurt the item doesn’t mean he should have free access to it. Keeping your child in the funnel is all about teaching him that the world is not his oyster. Allowing him to play with anything and everything in your home teaches him that life has no boundaries. Get him used to those boundaries from an early age.

The remote control is the most-often cited example. I highly doubt your 18-month-old knows how to use a remote the way it should be used. Maybe he sees you point it at the TV and will do the same, but does he know which buttons to push? I doubt it. It’s more likely he likes the sound it makes when he bangs it on the coffee table (which, I might add, he’ll also do when you’re at a friend’s house). Even if he uses it in a more gentle way (like pretending it’s a phone), you still shouldn’t allow it. Again, it teaches the child that he can play with anything and everything in the house. Find a toy version of a phone or remote and make the real ones off limits.

Now, there are some objects that call for a little more judgment. I know many parents allow their babies or toddlers to play with pots and pans, Tupperware containers or measuring spoons and cups. These are technically items that a child cannot use appropriately, so take caution. I won’t allow my children to play with these items since I use them regularly and don’t want to give them the idea that they can have free access to them. I do, however, have a drawer in my kitchen that has pieces to appliances and other kitchen-related items that I don’t use on a regular basis. This is the one drawer the kids know they are allowed to play in.

In addition to determining what items are off limits, this theory applies when determining what freedoms are appropriate. Test the theory when your child begins to show some independence. If he can get himself a glass of water and drink it appropriately at the table without spilling it or playing with it, he can be allowed that freedom. If he knows how to operate the TV and does so according to your direction (when you have allowed him to watch), it’s possible he can handle the freedom of turning it on and changing the channel. If he can play gently on the computer and only on the site you allow, he might be allowed the freedom.

If you are new to the Ezzo books, it’s likely you’ll have to scale way back on your child’s freedoms. That’s fine. It might be rough on both of you for a few days. But just keep redirecting him to his toys and other age-appropriate freedoms and you will both be fine. In just a matter of days, you’ll find yourself feeling less stressed and less concerned that your child is going to harm your things. And he will begin to show greater respect for your property.

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.