I have a 7 year old (almost!) son who always complains that we ask him to do this and that. That he has to follow instructions from his parents and grand parents all the time- about eating, doing his home work, getting his bags ready, waking up early in the morning, not watching TV etc, etc. He also has to navigate his way through conflicting instructions from parents and grand-mom- just when the dad has convinced him to do his Abacus class homework, the grand-mom will instruct that he eat or drink something! So it is not easy being a 7 year old with all these adults constantly dictating his life!
My husband and I decided that we would minimize the instructions, that he could take care of some things if we just let him be. The hidden agenda was also get the grandmom to chill a bit! So we decided to give him a day off of all instructions. While still in bed on a Sunday morning, we told him he could do anything he wanted the whole day and no one would give him any instructions. No one would tell him what to do next, when to eat, what to eat, when to bathe or when and how much TV he could watch!
His first reaction was complete disbelief. He asked a few times to confirm if NO ONE would tell him what to do, if he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted through the day. And was sort of bewildered with our response. We however laid out a few conditions: if he needed something, he had to do it himself in case he wanted any of us to help him with things, he had to wait for us to find the time for the same. He had to be clean if he wanted a hug from any of us, and if he wanted to attend the wedding, that I was planning to go to that evening, he had to be ready by himself by 5pm.
His next reaction surprisingly was panic. He suddenly felt he was being punished. He started crying saying that he didn’t think we troubled him with instructions, that it was only his grand-mom who constantly asked him to do this and that. He didn’t want to be left to himself and wanted us to tell him what to do next. He promised he would stay a good boy and would listen to anything we asked him to do!
We insisted that he follow through the day as he wished. To his credit, he managed through the day. He had to work really hard to keep himself engaged. He watched TV for a bit, but soon found it boring. He hardly ate through first half of the day. He didn’t like the idea that he had to do it himself if he wanted something. He asked help with his bath as he wanted to have it in the tub. But was reminded that he had to prepare it himself. Few times during the day he felt bored and asked us what to do. He actually sat down and did his Abacus homework as it seemed to keep him occupied for a long time! On other days we have to cajole him to do his homework. When grand-mom gave him an instruction he told her it was his “Freedom Day” and he would do what he wanted!
And through all this, the hard part was for us! To just let him be was not an easy task at all. We had to let go of our usual roles of watching over the kid and making sure he was engaged in some productive activity. For the grand-mom it was torture, to bear the thought that he hadn’t eaten anything till almost lunch time. And for us it wasn’t easy at all to tolerate him in his PJs till noon.
I also realized that when you are told you are fully free, you feel lost. We are not ready for that state. As humans we are so used to fighting for things, getting things that we want when someone says no. When we don’t have any such resistance, or an adversary real or imaginary, life feels empty. It also worries us that we have to take full responsibility for our actions, when we are not acting on or against someone’s instructions. When we are given freedom, suddenly we feel alone and responsible. Freedom has no meaning without responsibility. What we don’t have always seems more exciting than when we have it!
Coming back to my son, did he learn something that day, I don’t know. But he sure wants to have more Freedom Days. And this time he has to earn them. Which means he has to follow instructions for X number of days without making a big fuss for him to earn enough points for the next Freedom day! Freedom does not come free you see!