Structures and freedom

A few days ago, just before she went to bed, my daughter decided to write down her morning routine. She felt like her mornings would be easier if she could just follow the same schedule every day, so she wrote it out and she keeps it on her dresser. The schedule starts with waking up, followed by breakfast, getting dressed, brushing her hair, and getting her favourite toy dog ready for the day, in that order. She started to write more things but then decided against it, since she didn’t always know what she would want to do. So it seems that what mattered to her was to start the day in the way that best worked for her. I have a morning routine too, and my days always flow better when I stick to it, so I get this. But still, I wondered about her desire for that extra structure to her day.

The word ‘structure’ comes up a lot in talk about parenting. I’m a bit wary of it. Perhaps because it is promoted so often as a catch-all solution for issues that probably run deeper. Or perhaps because it seems like a word we use when we want to believe certain things are good for our children, even though our children hate them. Or perhaps because the words ‘structure’ and ‘timetable’ sometimes seem interchangeable, and I’m not sure that many of us genuinely thrive on strict timetables imposed by someone else.

Moving toward a freer lifestyle has naturally brought up a lot of questions for me around the whole topic of structure and what children need. Given my daughter’s desire for this little extra structure to her morning, it seemed like a good time to unpick my thoughts around this. Two questions come to mind. Firstly, why is it that children need structure and what does it give them? And secondly, what does ‘structure’ mean anyway? It seems rather subjective – after all, my structure may well be someone else’s chaos. And, are we talking daily routines here, or the bigger, more general structures of life that we’re all wrapped in, whether we like it or not?

To my mind, the majority of us have a basic human need for some kind of structure in our lives. In its most primitive sense, structure is surely about feeling safe. So, our family, our home, the wider community, perhaps also the rituals and traditions of our cultures. For a child in particular, whether this feels like a safe, solid structure, will also depend greatly on how the adults in their lives interact with them, and whether they are consistent and reliable. For a child to thrive, it seems like this little structure which is unique to each of them must feel strong and safe.

So, within that solid outer structure, what about the structures of day-to-day life? Most children in our society operate in a timetable of school, set mealtimes and bedtimes. If all of this is also what a child actually needs, then what happens if you take most of the timetables away?

Taking our sons out of school was a huge shift for us. Perhaps at the beginning there was a sense of listlessness, particularly as it didn’t matter what time anyone got up. But looking back, I think I was confusing being stressed at getting everyone out of the door with being purposeful. Just because a person gets up an hour later and isn’t rushed, doesn’t actually make their morning less purposeful in any kind of way. It took me a while to understand that they would replace the imposed structures with their own, more complex, highly personalised structures.

The structures of lessons and homework may well push children along the educational pipeline, and help them ‘achieve’ by those standards. But I’m not sure there’s any developmental advantage to managing their time for them in this way. Anything imposed from outside is unlikely to instil much sense of purpose or meaning. But when you trust children to be in charge of their own time, not only is that affirming to them, it also means that they get to figure out a lot of things by themselves and in their own way.

In this house, people frequently get upset about their procrastination around things they really want or need to do. Most adults procrastinate a fair amount (and we all went to school), so to have to get to grips with this from a young age seems powerful to me. Sometimes, they’ll ask for help and we’ll figure out a way through together, but most of the time they work it out themselves. They also have to prioritise and plan according to what they want to get done. And, of course, without timetables, they have the luxury of spending entire days on something that fascinates them, without being rushed on to the next thing. They get a chance to think about their own personal rhythms and what works best for them. They’re each quite different in the amount of input they want or need and how they go about tasks. One jumps straight in and zips purposely through anything they want to do, whereas another spends a long time thinking and considering it all from lots of angles. The lack of imposed daily structure gives them the freedom to explore all of this.

Of course, there is also a natural structure to daily life, provided by all sorts of things. I always get up first. We all tend to feel hungry for lunch at around the same time. Dinnertime varies a bit, but it’s more or less at the same time every day and that suits us all. Each child has different activities they’ve chosen to do, so those form part of the structure. We have pizza on a Saturday night and pancakes on a Sunday morning. C and I do yoga together every day and, right now, she goes to bed at a certain time so that she can be up in the morning around the same time as her best friend. D is a night owl but hates to miss out on the day. So no matter what time he goes to bed he never sleeps beyond a certain time. When he gets too tired he just readjusts his schedule. For him, I think this way of life has undone years of anxiety around sleeping and bedtime. He understands how his body clock works and he is in charge of it.

So, coming back to my daughter and her morning schedule. I think the most important thing in her life right now at the age of eight, is that she feels safe and cared for. That’s the structure that matters, and the one that empowers her. The time and space within that structure is hers to experiment with as much as she likes and is possible. Right now, she feels empowered to take control of her mornings and organise them in the way that best suits her. She isn’t asking for more structure. She is creating it.

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