Surely it is not coercive to have a rule that whenever our child goes out, he must first tell us where he is going and for how long? What about being a responsible parent?!

“We allow our ten-year-old to go where he likes, but we have a rule that whenever he goes out, he must first tell us where he is going and for how long. Don’t we have a right to this elementary courtesy (to save us from worrying)? Surely it is not coercive to have such a rule? What about being a responsible parent?!”

No, such a rule is a mistake, and yes, it is likely to be coercive. He may well choose to tell you things to save you from worrying. But this question looks at the issue backwards in multiple ways. First, courtesy should never be compelled – for that makes it a sham. And is it about manners or is it about being responsible, or is it about saving you from worry?

More importantly, it is not he who owes you explanations and information, but vice versa, so you have no moral right to make such a rule. It should never be a case of you ‘allowing’ him out; he is entitled to choose when and where he goes. He is a sovereign individual whose life is his own.

The primary reason it is often a good idea for him to tell you where he intends to go is that you may have some good advice that he would wish to know before setting out. Another good reason is that if he should disappear without notice, you will need to take some steps to fulfil your duty to protect him – and then you will want to know whether he might be lying injured at the bottom of the garden, or in the park (which park?), or lost, or too embarrassed to tell old Mr Jones that he’s lost interest in hearing more of his gardening advice about petunias, or how to keep the slugs from eating all the lettuces.

But note that this duty does not stem from any parental right: it stems from the child’s wish to be protected. So the proper way to deal with it is not to lay down a rule requiring him to say where he is going, but to have a discussion with him, based on the question: “If you should ever disappear, or not return when we are expecting you to, what do you want us to do?”

My own parents and I came up with what I myself found a terrific solution to this sort of problem. I did not want to tell my parents where I was going, let alone have a big discussion about it, so I suggested (and they readily agreed) that I would write down the name, address and telephone number of who I was visiting or where I was going, and I would seal that information in an envelope, such that in the event I disappeared, they would have the information, and that otherwise, I could be private about where I was going. If I was going be out for what might seem like a very long time, like for a sleepover, I would note on the outside of the envelope that they should not expect me back for at least 16 or however many hours.

My parents only opened that envelope on one occasion in my entire childhood, when I was 17 and had been at a party in London for 3 days. (This was long before mobile phones, let alone smart phones, otherwise I would have texted them to let them know I would be gone longer than the 16 hours I had expected to be gone. Now that we all have smart phones, why is this still a live issue at all? What am I missing?)

Whether my own childhood solution might seem agreeable to your child might depend on whether or not you, like my parents, have never violated your child’s privacy – whether you can be trusted not to steam open the envelope. I knew that my parents would never dream of doing such a thing. My parents also had a “no news is good news” policy: in the absence of news to the contrary, their assumption was that there was nothing to worry about.

I totally understand the need to be responsible. We have a duty to keep our children safe. And if we don’t, they may be taken away and put in foster homes in which they will be abused. I get it! Of course you want to do the right thing. The trouble is that if, to you, being a responsible parent requires coercing your children, unfortunately I think that very conviction may itself cause some of the very catastrophes you hope to avoid. Children no more react well to being coercively controlled than we do. Coercion has unintended consequences that most parents do not take into account.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘Surely it is not coercive to have a rule that whenever our child goes out, he must first tell us where he is going and for how long? What about being a responsible parent?!’,

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