As a father, I have tended to give my kids a lot of freedom to make their own choices. The primary reason for this is I feel it is important that they learn to make their own correct decisions, and they only way they can do this is with lots of experience of having to make their own decisions. But when our kids are making the wrong decisions, it is our job as their parents to help them make the right ones. This involves discipline. I have avoided this because I feel getting angry at my kids does more harm than whatever mistake they have been making. I have also avoided this because I myself really dislike it when other people tell me what to do and it invites rebellion. But I have gone too far to the extreme of granting excessive freedom to my kids, and this is doing them a disservice. Because our kids lack sufficient experience or understanding of what is important, it is our job to provide them with limits for those areas where they are not yet capable of making the right decisions.
I think the key is creating very clear rules, that are fair and reasonable, and these rules need to be applied consistently with clear and proportionate natural consequences when they are violated. The rules do not need to be enforced with anger – ever. Anger destroys the constructive value of the rules. In life, people need the skill of respect for authority, but this is different than obedience. Obedience is you obey out of fear, respect for authority is acknowledging that the other person is an authority (be it through superior knowledge, experience or legitimate power of decision-making), and this authority needs to be respected. There is nothing wrong with teaching our kids respect for authority, but there is something wrong with “breaking them” like some horse that needs to be trained so that they “obey”.
Rules should be clear, reasonable and process based. It should be crystal clear what is expected and what is not allowed. The rules should be reasonable, fair and not arbitrary. Most importantly, they should be focused on the question of “how” things are done. When we do things, we do them right. We focus on hard-work, diligence, thoroughness, doing things properly, not specific outcomes. For example, a rule we are needing to teach our 4 year old is “if you cry/get angry for it, you don’t get it.” Yes, we should have taught that at 2, but like I said, we have been too far to the extreme of excessive freedom.
When applying rules (I like the word applying better than enforcing), I have found it is vital to eliminate any trace of doubt. This is how it is going to be. Kids, even small babies, can sense your doubt a mile away and they will exploit it and test it. But if they know it is unamigiously as you say, then they don’t test it. This is why it is very important for the rules to be fair and reasonable, because what is more obnoxious and counter-productive than the strict application of unreasonablness!
It is likewise important to teach our kids how to interact with others. We are thinking of introducing a rule that our kids have to play together at least 1 hour a day on the weekends. We are establishing a rule of limiting the number of hours per day our kids can be in front of a screen of some kind (TV, xbox, computer, etc.). We are establishing a rule that nobody leaves the dinner table until everyone is done (or at least the other kids). We have a rule that after snack homework is done before we play (“do what you have to do before what you want to do”). And even on Christmas, today, we try apply certain rules: we don’t start until after 8:30, each person opens their presents one at a time in order, you always say thank you, etc.
Finally, it goes without saying that “those who make the rules must follow the rules.” Nothing is more self-defeating than breaking your own rules. In the end, our kids need to learn moral discipline, which depends on self-discipline, which depends on having good habits. Those habits are formed by following good examples and having been raised in a family that “does things right.” Success in life depends upon discipline, and as parents this is a skill we need to cultivate within our kids. Discipline does not mean punishment, it means self-control to do the right things.