Balancing Freedom of Children and Authority of Parents



1.        Introduction

The aim of this article is to show the relationship between the freedom of children as they grow up and the authority of parents over their children in parenting. In most cases conflicts are experienced between parents and children especially when the children get to adolescence. Most children consider the authority of their parents and family directives as infringing their freedom to do what they want. As a result, when they get to adolescence, they feel strong enough to fight back and reclaim their freedom. Some parents have destroyed their children by letting them do what they want; while others find it difficult to exercise their authority over their children for fear they might interfere with their freedom. In some countries as well, parents have been prohibited by law from doing what lies within their legitimate authority with a reason of protecting the freedom of children.

The question is: do laws and authority interfere with one’s freedom? This article attempts to answer this question. Using Christian philosophical approach we shall discuss the concepts of freedom, what is good, laws and authority in order to show that laws and authority are not opposed to freedom but help one to be free. We hope that this article will help parents in bringing up their children in responsible freedom, for the benefit of the children, the families and the society at large.

What is freedom?

In order to understand the role of authority and laws in helping one to be free we need a clear understanding of freedom. Experience has shown that misunderstanding freedom has been a result of many moral evils in our society. Many people have a wrong conception of freedom as the capacity or ability to do what one wants provided it does not interfere with others. This erroneous understanding of freedom is not only among children but also among parents, political leaders and activists. As a result many people are claiming freedom and rights which are not true freedom or rights. This has destroyed the society, politics and the noble institution – the family. It is not uncommon to find people claiming: “I have freedom of speech – I can say what I want – I can post anything on the internet. I am free to my sexuality – I can use it the way I want – I can choose to be what I want: homosexual or lesbian; female or male; wife or husband. I am free to my body: I can procure abortion if I want,” and many other claims. This shows that there is a dire need to have a clear understanding of freedom. What is freedom then?

Freedom is the capacity or ability to choose what is good without any constraints. Freedom is not the capacity to choose or to do what one wants, but what is good whether one likes it or not. Therefore, whenever we demand freedom it should be for choosing and doing what is good. As a parent, whenever you consider freedom of your children or whenever the children demand freedom, ask yourself: “are they demanding the ability to choose what is good?” This is a clear and simple definition of freedom. However, this definition begs another question: what is good?

What is good?

Another problem that causes erroneous understanding of freedom is the question of what good is. Many people consider good to be what they like. That is why, it is common now for people to argue that ‘what is good to me should not necessarily be good to others – one’s meat is one’s poison.’ This understanding of good as relative is very dangerous because it makes morality and ethics relative and therefore, something that cannot be taught. For example, suppose that a young girl claims that pre-marital sex is good for her. What will the parents say if what is good is relative? Other people argue that it is good what is allowed by law. This is also dangerous because, for example, how will it be possible to judge which law is good and which is not. Therefore, the definition of what is good should be independent of the subject and the laws. What is good then?

It is good what is according to nature. It is good for human beings what follows human nature; which makes human beings be what they were intended to be; what they were created for. Our being has a purpose; it has a goal.  It is good what leads us to this goal. A human being is an unfinished project. It is good what makes us complete this project. Our goal is to attain goodness, to be good as our creator himself told us: “You will be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt.5:45). This is the criterion to judge whether something is good. Does it make me or others more human? Is it in accordance with my nature and dignity as a human being?

If we do not choose what is good we cannot be good. This is because human acts are immanent; they recoil back and affect the doer. We become what we choose; we become what we do.’ Someone who steals becomes a thief; not just by name but from within. Someone who procures abortion, become a killer. If we do not choose good we cannot attain our purpose. Therefore, freedom cannot be for choosing anything we want because anything we want would mean that our life has no purpose; it can end anywhere. If this were the case then human beings would be the most pitiful of all animals. But the truth is that our life has a goal and the goal is to be good and we can attain our goal by choosing good. We can choose good because we are free.

Is good, common to all human beings?

The answer is yes. Since it is good what is according to nature, what is good is common to all human beings because we share common nature – we are human beings. We share common goal, common dignity, and common purpose as human beings. Therefore, what is good for one is necessarily good for others. This is the basis for common and universal morality and ethics. Morality and ethics are not relative. They are rooted in our nature. It is not in our capacity to decide what is good. What is good is natural as decided by our creator; whether we like or not; whether it pleases us, or not. That is why God prevented Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of good and evil. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen.2:16-17).God wanted to make it clear that it is not in the capacity of human beings to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil. That is reserved to the creator and he has made it clear in our nature. Our duty is to struggle to know our nature, what is good for us and use our freedom to choose that what is good so that we can complete our project and fulfill our purpose to be good.

How can we know our nature and what is good?

We can know what is good by using reason. Unlike other animals the human being is endowed with reason and freedom. We are aware of our being and actions. Human beings have the capacity to reason and know their nature and what is good and by using their will they can choose what they have known to be good. Here is where the danger of erring in our choices lies. If we err in our knowledge of our nature and what is good, we can by no means make right choices. Therefore, there is a need for proper education on what is good, what is evil, what our nature is and what the purpose of life is.  That is why Jesus said: “Truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Another way of knowing what is good is revelation.  Because of our weakness as human beings due to the effects of original sin and because of the influences from the world, it becomes difficult sometimes to discern what is really good. It is here that revelation becomes of great help to our reasoning. What has been revealed in our religions confirms what we know by our reason and comes to our aid whenever our reason fails to know what is good. The ten commandments of God for example, help us to know what is good and what is evil. Christianity is at a better advantage because God himself who created us is the one who has revealed to us our nature and what is good for us.

Do laws and authority interfere with our freedom?

This is the center of this article. We are trying to answer the question: When parents exercise authority over their children and set family rules or directives, do they interfere with the freedom of their children?

If we have clearly understood the concept of freedom expounded above it should be clear that laws and authority do not interfere with our freedom but help us to be free.

Just laws (laws that draw from our nature or natural law) help us to know what is good and what is evil in various situations of our life. The Ten Commandments for example, clearly show us what is good. Positive laws by legislators too unless they contradict the natural law, show what is good.  They give us light on what we should do. That is why the Psalmist says: “I will keep your law continually, forever and ever and I will walk at liberty” (Ps.119:44). To walk at liberty means to be free. Since the law is lamp for our steps (Ps.119.1) we cannot stumble.

Legitimate authority helps us to implement what the rule or law has put before us. In the family context, for example,  parents have the duty to set for themselves and for their children some directives whether written or not, which, taking from a clear understanding of what is good put before the children what they should do and what they should avoid in order to be good. Using their authority, parents ensure that these directives are followed for the good of their children.

Dear parents, you have the duty and authority to educate your children on matters of morality – on what is good and what is evil and to train them to choose and do good. By so doing, you will help them exercise well their freedom. This responsibility lies in the nature of your marriage. The purpose of your marriage is your good as spouses and the procreation and education of your offspring. Education does not only mean paying school fees but also and more importantly moral education. If you do not fulfill this duty, with a reason that you are giving freedom to your children, you will be responsible for the lawless, immoral and corrupt society that you will create.

To be able to provide proper teaching to your children, you need to be clear on what is good in various aspects of life; and as good examples to your children, you should struggle on you part to do good, otherwise you will confuse your children. If you do not teach them, they will be taught by the world as the Swahili saying goes “Asiyefunzwa na mamaye atafunzwa na ulimwengu.” Their peers at school and the media will teach them. If we teach them that there is no universal good, and that good is what one wants; they will have no criterion for judging what is good and what is evil. They will take whatever is presented to them by the world. And if they are not trained to say YES to good even if it is bitter and to say NO to what is wrong even if they like it; they will be taken by any wind.

Leaving your children to do what they want does not make them free. The Swahili saying “mtoto akililia wembe, mpe” has no love in it.  Recall what God did to the Israelites. He told them “Look, I have set before you today, life and death, good and evil…therefore, choose life that you and your descendants may live”(Deut.30:15-20). He first taught them what is good and what is evil, then he helped them on what to choose. He says “…therefore, choose life that you and your descendants may live.”

Teach your children to recognize authority. Our children are not to be authority to themselves; neither are we. They should not decide by themselves on what is right or wrong. Remember “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen.2:16-17). Children should be helped to recognize that there is a power beyond them who decides on what is right and what is wrong. If we do not help them when they are still young they will get problems during their teenage, when they start deciding on their own. It is at this time that parents usually start wondering on how their children make decisions. When your child at college starts misbehaving that is when you become too much concerned because you are afraid your fee is wasted. It is at this point most parents start imposing rules. Children will not accept them at this age because you did not prepare them to obey authority. This proves true the Swahili saying: Samaki mkunje angali mbichi.

We should be careful about new trends and theories that are emerging about parenting. Theories like, Children have their own freedom. Their freedom must be respected. Discuss with your children. Do not be authoritative. No one denies that children have freedom. As human beings, they are free. However, to exercise well their freedom they need education and training.

Exercising legitimate authority does not mean being oppressive. As a parent, you are fulfilling your responsibility of helping your children to be free – to know and choose what is good. To infringe their freedom would be to prevent them from choosing what is good.

It is good to discuss with your children but the aim of your discussion should not be to decide what should be right or wrong but should aim at understanding and helping your children to discern what is right and what is wrong. God has already decided for us what is right and what is wrong according to our nature. Our task is to learn what God has decided for us.

I am over 18; I can decided on my own

This statement is common among adolescents. Are they justified? If we clearly understand what freedom is and what is good, we can notice that the above claim can either be legitimate or illegitimate. If a child took the family rules and parents’ authority as a tutor to help them exercise well their freedom then their claim is legitimate. This means that they have graduated and can stand on their own. They have known what is good and are able to say yes to good and no to evil. They can therefore, be left alone and make good decisions. This is what the parents need – to see their children graduating by being able to stand on their own and make good decisions. This is what St. Paul tells the Galatians, “…the law was our tutor until Christ came” (Gal 3:23).

On the other hand, if a child took the parents’ guidance as an oppression to get rid of when they are above 18 then the claim is illegitimate because they still need a tutor on what is good and how to make good decisions.



The aim of this article was to show that parents while exercising their legitimate authority over their children in the family do not interfere with the freedom of their children but help their children to exercise well their freedom. This has been shown by looking at the relationship that exits between freedom, what is good, laws and authority.  From what has been discussed, the following conclusions can be made.

  1. Freedom is the capacity to choose what is good.
  2. It is good what is according to human nature.
  3. Since human beings share common nature, what is good for one human being should necessarily be good for all.
  4. In order to be free it is important to know what is good and what the purpose of human life is.
  5. Laws and authority help us to know what is good and to make practice in choosing what is good.
  6. Human beings do not decide by themselves on what is good. What is good for us is already decided in our nature by God the creator. Human beings should only struggle to know this good in order to make good decisions.
  7. The good can be known by using our reason aided by revelation. Therefore, we should not despise what our faith teaches us on what is good and what is evil.
  8. Parents have legitimate responsibility and authority vested in the nature of their marriage, to know what is good, teach their children what is good and train them with authority to choose good. If they fulfill this duty, they will help their children to exercise well their freedom.
  9. Children should receive with grateful hearts the directives from their parents. Parents and other legitimate rules do not interfere with their freedom but help them to exercise their freedom because to be free one needs proper understanding of what is good and the nature and purpose of human life which they can understand through their parents and just laws and regulations.

Look, I have set before you today, life and death, good and evil…therefore, choose life that you and your descendants may live”(Deut.30:15-20).

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