At 13, I went to visit my friend and no one in her large, rambling house knew where she was. Her mum said she'd last seen her an hour ago. Her grand-aunt clucked and said she assumed she'd be back sooner or later. Only her little brother was able to say for certain what had happened, "She's packed and gone to China. Forever." I ambled home marveling at their nonchalance. The rule at our house was that any change in social plans had to presented in detail to my mother. Spontaneity was for the birds and other children, with 'Freedom'. My mother's nickname in college had been "I'll ask my mummy". The inheritance was seamless. As children, my five siblings and I were not allowed school picnics or unaccompanied travel outside the neighbourhood. We took a lot of ribbing from our friends but with six kids, my parents exhausted themselves every day, treading the see-saw of burgeoning chores and dwindling resources. Distilled down to its essence, my mum's point was, 'Worrying about where each of you are is SIX more things for me to do, so do not make me have to.' Though we walked to school and play on our own, (the breakdown of the 'familiar village' had not begun) our parents knew where we were and with whom at all times. I'm beginning to believe "Freedom for Children" is an outdated ideal. They seem at best, at more risk, at worst, under bloody siege. It's more than sexual predators in schools and grumpy fliers threatening babies with Benadryl. When fresh fruit is ripened with chemicals that can send your child to hospital, they lose the freedom to eat something without a responsible adult checking the source. Polluted air is a loss of freedom.
Concrete jungles are a loss of freedom. Over-subscribed to and therefore prohibitively competitive college-seats become a loss of freedom. But there is no need to dab at the wistful moisture on your rose-tinted childhood nostalgia. Your own freedom, as a parent, has been severely curtailed as well. You are expected to be more present. You don't smoke in front of your kids. You are supposed to intelligently nourish not just their ever-burgeoning appetites but also their minds and their souls and introduce them to art and negotiate kindly with them rather than resorting to a swarthy, old-fashioned yelling, throwing them a bag of chips and letting them watch violent cartoons for an hour. Or maybe that was just our house. With a history of "I'll ask my mummy" behind me, and as a mother of three, I don't think children need all that 'freedom'. Don't let your high-horses harrumph at me yet though. For one thing, our (relatively modern) glorification of childhood 'freedom and innocence' does much disservice to the reality of turning babies into functioning adult members of a changing society. Childhood is not some dreamy, magical journey. It is very hard work. More importantly, 'Freedom' needs an age-appropriate rating and, not just my mummy and my grand-mummy, but even Science will back me up on this. Physiological changes in the human body help catalyse emotional development.
Which is why the crush on Harry Styles will arrive along with the acne. Freedom without maturity is a recipe for disaster. But maturity, i.e. the ability to judge present actions or reactions by their future consequences, is determined by the frontal lobes of the brain. (These lobes are also responsible for suppressing socially unacceptable behaviour.) And, unsurprisingly, these important frontal lobes only reach full maturity In Your Late Twenties. So parents, you own your grumpy, restive "don't tell me what to do" teens' behinds until then. Or at least that is what you should tell them. Modern parents would do well to pivot focus to autonomy and competence. Your kids have greater autonomy than you ever did. They choose their own clothes, information and media for personal consumption. They do less chores, are probably more efficiently cared for in terms of quality of attention, nutrition and exercise. They have access to technology that allows for more varied creative expression and they have more forums to present that to peer and public review.
Sure, some of them will use the internet and their art-apps to create couple photos with a One Direction member and caption it "Mrs Liam Payne", but still... With greater autonomy comes surer competence. Across our (admittedly privileged) milieu, schools are evolving. Not only is corporal punishment absent, even verbal corrections are scrutinised for insensitivity. While the general impression of those outside the system would be that this creates a generation of spoilt, never-yelled-at, laissez-faire entitled slobs, quite the opposite is happening. Teachers are partnering with parents to develop individual excellence. Support systems are being put in place. The examination and grading system is being reworked. The children are thriving and turning into confident, ebullient, intelligent little beasts, encouraged to argue respectfully, study independently and look for their niche. Freedom, independence, autonomy – call it what you will – must be relegated to the sanctum of the extremely subjective prerogative. One 12 year old takes a train to his school 45 minutes away. Another has only just been allowed access to the internet. A 13 year old earns babysitting money because she is responsible enough to care for a younger sibling. Her friend has been taking flights alone to see her grandparents since she was 6. At 17, my family moved abroad and I elected to stay back in Bombay. I lived alone in our flat, went to college and graduated in the top 10 percent of my class. My peers were sneaking out, getting drunk or having early sexual encounters. But, my friends and I used the 'adult- free' space to watch films, our only questionable decisions being the awful Chinese takeaways we subsisted on and letting grunge music slightly damage our hearing. By 20, I had a job in a newspaper and my parents were okay with me spending weeks backpacking around Kerala and Nepal. I like to say that in our day, 25 was the new 35. Most of us were focused on growing up, attaining financial freedom, moving out of home. I'm not too fussed about my children's freedom. Once they learn to value money, nurture healthy relationships, stand up for what is right, resist peer pressure, use cognition and analysis productively and make their little worlds a better place, they are free to do as they please. My daughter came home the other day telling me about an ambitious social plan for the evening that had been made just five minutes ago. I raised an eyebrow at her, "Don't worry mama," she said, "I already told them my mum will say no." It's an evolution from "I'll ask my mummy." This girl may even go the Moon. Anytime her frontal lobes are mature.