Freedom takes form

by Kristin on October 24, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by emdot

Do you remember what freedom felt like as a teenager, or at least what form you thought the ultimate in freedom would take? A car to drive, money to spend, no curfew, no questions. In my case such freedoms were only imagined, never realized, but I could still guess how amazing that moment would feel when I finally experienced it.

On Saturday morning, my 15-year-old stepdaughter was enduring the exact opposite of freedom, at least from her perspective. All four of her parents had taken her out for pancakes—YUM!—but as we were being seated at our table, you could see in her teen face that the outing did not feel at all like a treat.

She had good reason to scowl. The pancakes were not just a fun thing to do—we were hoping to sweeten the new restrictions we were about to impose on her life at both houses: periods of time when the Internet will be turned off, a “bedtime” for her phone that’s a few hours earlier than her own bedtime, which would also be enforced. I’m not sure you can pour enough syrup on rules like that to make them palatable.

We had tried other approaches, though, like the “we trust you to manage your time and make good choices” route. It just wasn’t effective enough on its own, hence the two-page documents on the table between coffee cups and pots of butter and jam, outlining the new order of things.

The natural urge to resist what’s good for us

The conversation was an interesting process. We wanted our daughter to buy in—to see how these new rules were for her, not against her. She’s a smart, good kid, so we wanted it to feel less like an edict and more like collaborative framework. Jason even had hopes that when it was all said and done she would be grateful for the structure and consistency; I was less optimistic.

First we gave the whole “we’re doing this because we love you” speech. She looked unimpressed. Then we explained that the rules all revolved around helping her live a healthier, more balanced life that would feel more manageable and under control. She seemed to get that, but couldn’t help but feel like our approach was invasive and meddling.

Suddenly one of my favorite concepts popped into my head: Freedom within form. The idea is that a form—perhaps a poetic structure, the dimensions of a painter’s canvas, or even marriage, as Wendell Berry has written—might appear to be restrictive, but it actually allows for greater freedom, within the constructs. We all tend to think of freedom as no boundaries, no curfews, no compromises, anything goes. But that kind of freedom can either send us running in so many directions that nothing is truly accomplished or enjoyed, or it can overwhelm us to the point of paralysis. It seems like freedom, but it doesn’t end up feeling like freedom.

“It seems like the more ‘freedom’ you have, the more we end up looking over your shoulder, asking you what you’re watching, if your homework is done, how much time you’ve spent on Facebook, and when you’re going to go to bed,” I pointed out. “If we agree on a framework like this, that won’t be necessary. We can stay out of your hair more, and you can do your thing more.”

By the time we left the pancake house, our teen had a completely different take on both our conversation and the new structure we had devised. She actually seemed amenable, just as Jason had hoped.

Exploring my own boundaries and forms

I know it wasn’t just the whole freedom-in-form concept that did the trick, but it sure got me thinking about all of the important structures and forms in my own life: a work schedule, a belief structure, a household budget, a family calendar on the kitchen wall, ongoing responsibilities I’ve volunteered for, people who count on me, deadlines for clients, an understanding of what comprises a healthy diet…. The structures go on and on, and the thought of my life without them makes me feel chaotic and overwhelmed. It even occurred to me that the less my brain has to sort through and negotiate every parameter in the moment, the more creative freedom it has to explore and let loose, within these safe, manageable spaces.

It also occurred to me that parenting a teenager might not be as hard as I thought. They are, after all, an awful lot like us, aren’t they? We all have a lot to learn, together.

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  • Ray Hollenbach

    It all makes such sense; in our most rational moments we know it’s true. I’d love to read a follow-up to this post in, say, six months just to see how the practice works out. “H” is lucky to have four fine examples.

  • Roxanne

    One has to be responsible to manage freedom … I suppose that responsibility is the form you are talking about here ….

  • Matt

    You touch upon some very interesting topics here, Kristin.

    One of them is, of course, the whole concept of ‘freedom.’ Taking it out of a political context, as you have done, is marvelous. While some folks inherit lots of money, or win the lottery, most of us aren’t that fortunate. We have to work for a living. Yet, as you touch upon with the “form” and structure of having a job, it *does* allow us a freedom, of sorts. We have off-time. If we make enough, and spend wisely enough, we can utilize the money we’ve made during work-time, and do fun things during off-time. That’s a freedom that working, and earning money, gives us. At least, that’s how I like to look at it.

    The other topic you touch upon is the age-old parent/child divide. It’s rough (and I say that as someone who doesn’t have any kids). We see ourselves in so many young people. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? It used to be, as a kid — and *especially* as a teen — I would be convinced that my parents and other adults simply didn’t understand. Yet, when we get older, we realize that they probably understoof all too well. It’s just that when you’re young, and your brain isn’t fully developed, you can’t see that. If I had a kid (especially an older kid), I would *love* to grant them the freedom to do what they wanted, and trust that it would all be ok. And, at some point, every parent has to legally do that.

    But, yeah, we (unfortunately) know better. :-/

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    This reminds me of A Wrinkle in Time, and the idea that our lives are like a sonnet. The form is set, but the content is completely up to us. (However, as a teenager I simply would have rebelled against such a notion – rules do NOT equal freedom to the teenage mind.) Now, though, I agree with you – there are a lot of structures I need in my life, and some of them help foster my creativity.

  • Jennifer

    Oh, the follies of youth. I can totally see your H barely concealing her disdain. We are, after all, total morons as parents in many teenaged eyes. What came to mind as I read this is how little I enjoy “experimental” literature. Because it follows some kind of logic to which I am unaccustomed, I get snippy and impatient with it very quickly. Not a fan. I like rules. I like knowing what’s expected. And I like being trusted to handle my business. (That doesn’t mean I always follow all the rules, because let’s face it: some rules are stupid. tee hee.)

    I like the way you handled this, and I hope it helps. Gives me hope for the teenager in my house who is ready with a contradiction before I open my howling screamer.

  • Kristin T.

    Ray, the short-term follow up is this: the teen is finishing her homework and going to bed about two hours earlier, and the adults are going through internet withdrawl! We’re all going to learn and grow through the process. I’ll keep you posted. :)

    Roxanne, you’re right, the word “responsibility” is an important part of the equation. Freedom without responsibility equals chaos.

    Matt, ah yes—talking about what it means to “live in a free country” would certainly add complexity to our dinner table discussions about this! You are right on with your own example about work, and the freedom that comes with that structure/constraint. As a freelancer, I have more freedom, which requires more discipline and structure. (Without it, I wouldn’t make any money!) It sounds like if you do become a parent one day, you will be a good one. :)

    Katie, yes! I love the sonnet analogy: “The form is set, but the content is completely up to us.” When you start to think about how God created us, and how much free will he gives us, etc., it all gets really interesting…

    Jennifer, can you imagine having FOUR parents, all in your business, keeping an eye on you?? At least she usually only has to deal with us two at a time. I have to admit, I’m sort of a fan of rules, too, as long as they adhere to my logic. When they don’t, look out!