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.