Power of Free Will

Free Will

Big Idea: The only person you can make change is you.

Goal: Learning to connect and guide instead of force and coerce. 

Skill: Choices

Structures: Visual Rules with Two Positive Choices

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The Power of Free Will says, “I am in charge of me, and I am the only person who can make myself change.” It also says, “You are in charge of you, and you are the only person who can make yourself change.”

Exercising this power requires us to honor our will and the will of others, including the children in our care. It promotes choice, personal responsibility and accountability.

To access the Power of Free Will, we must confront two widely held false beliefs:

  1. Outside events force us to make certain choices (e.g. I have to cook dinner tonight, I should exercise, Don’t make me tell you again).
  2. We can make others act in ways we desire.

These false beliefs cause great trouble in relationships and profoundly shape the way we handle discipline.

Power of Free Will Myth #1: Outside Events Are in Charge of Me

Pay attention to how often you use phrases like have to, should, and make me. Collectively, we call these terms “make me” language. When we use “make me” language, we cast ourselves as victims of the world around us, stripping ourselves of power.

Using this language allows us to avoid responsibility and accountability for our actions. It robs us of the joy of our successes and the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

Next time you catch yourself saying should, shift to could. When you hear yourself saying have to or make me, say I’m going to instead. For instance, instead of telling your children, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” say, “Fasten your seat belts, or I’m going to pull this car over so that everyone is safe.”

When you think, These children are driving me crazy, remember, I am choosing to go crazy over the noise in this classroom. I am safe. Keep breathing. I can choose differently.

This simple shift in language empowers us, placing us in charge of our life choices. By changing the language you use, you also model personal responsibility rather than blaming for the children in your care.

What happens when we give our power away to children?

When we tell children they are “making” us behave a certain way, we place them in charge of us. Children respond to this power in one of two ways. Some children immediately attempt to regain our love and approval. They learn that their power comes from pleasing others, not from making their own choices.

Others, hearing that they have the power to “make you” angry, may experiment with this information. If that action made you angry, what will make you cry? They learn that their power comes from controlling others, not from making their own choices.

Giving our power away to children teaches them to be either people-pleasing or control-seeking. In turn, it sets us up to blame. Power struggles then ensue, rupturing bonds and creating problems instead of solving them.

In addition, children may begin to feel a sense of inadequacy. If they’re in charge of how adults feel, why can’t they make their parents happy? Why can’t they be good enough to make everything better? Giving our power to children can cause pressure, stress and anxiety.

By choosing to shift our “make me” language to the language of responsibility and choice, we reclaim our power and provide a healthy model for children.

Power of Free Will Myth #2: I Can Make Others Change

In our society, it’s an extremely common belief that adults can make children behave. It’s so common, in fact, that adults are often judged on their ability to do so.

This creates immense pressure and stress for adults and children alike. Adults begin to believe that they are bad parents or ineffective teachers when they fail to make children behave the way they desire. In response, adults blame children and often escalate the severity of punishments and threats.

The truth is that making someone else change is impossible. We can attempt to threaten, manipulate, coerce and force, but the other person is ultimately responsible for choosing whether to comply.

We’ve all met children who simply don’t respond to threats, loss of privileges, promises of rewards, or other forms of control. No matter what tactics we try to make children behave, the willingness to change is still their choice.

What happens when we try to make children change?

When we try to make children change, we train ourselves to rely on force. We teach children that it’s appropriate to use force to influence others.

Fear-based discipline throws children into the lower centers of the brain, where they become unconscious. They develop unconscious beliefs (e.g. I’m a terrible person or I shouldn’t trust anyone) that govern the rest of their lives and strip them of their free will.

By removing children’s choices, we take away their self-worth and replace their internal willpower with external forcefulness. This models the same power-over relationship that is found in bullying and domestic violence.

The belief that adults can and should make children change creates feelings of frustration and inadequacy that lead to blame. Parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents, and everyone ultimately blames children. Blame removes the possibility of finding solutions because we are not accepting responsibility and are focused on what we don’t want. As long as you’re focused on the problem, you’re not open to solutions.

When we blame, we also teach children to shift blame to others rather than taking responsibility and seeking solutions. In addition, punishment triggers upset, placing children in their emotional state, where blame and attack are automatic. Children usually blame others in direct proportion to the amount and severity of punishment.

Our focus must be on problem solving and solutions, not punishment, for children to take responsibility for their choices and make wise decisions.

Traditional Model of Discipline vs. Conscious Discipline Model

Traditional Discipline Conscious Discipline
It is our job to make others behave and to control others. Controlling and changing ourselves is possible and has a profound impact on others.
When we succeed in making others behave, we demonstrate power and authority. Power comes from overruling others. Power comes from within. By choosing to control ourselves instead of others, we feel empowered.
When I fail to make someone obey, it is their fault. I am entitled to blame them and others. When things don’t go my way, I will seek solutions. I am responsible for my feelings and actions.
Conflict is bad and disruptive. It must be eliminated/stopped. If you are good enough, conflict will never trouble you. Conflict is an essential part of life. It presents me with an opportunity to learn a missing skill or let go of a limiting belief.
Rules and consequences govern behavior. Connectedness governs behavior.
Children must feel bad in order to behave better. Revenge is the answer to life’s upsets. For children to learn how to behave, they must be taught. We teach others how to treat us. They can’t magically “know” unless we tell them.
Fear is the best motivator for learning. Fear is more powerful than love. Love is more powerful than fear. Cooperation is more powerful than coercion.

Instead of buying into false beliefs, giving our power away and attempting to exert force on others, we can choose responsibility, choice and free will.

Free will stimulates the development of the prefrontal lobes, teaching children to choose wisely and govern themselves. Without the development of the prefrontal lobes, we can expect more crime, drug abuse, bullying and loss of human potential.

In Conscious Discipline, we build classrooms on solid foundations of safety and connection. These classrooms soothe the survival and emotional states. We then stimulate the executive state and the prefrontal lobe through problem solving in social situations.

We consciously provide children with opportunities to access their Power of Free Will. Whether the children in our care choose willingness depends on several factors. The greatest of these is the health of the relationship. Connection fosters cooperation. It is connection, not fear or coercion, that governs behavior and inspires cooperation.

Making the Shift: How to Harness Your Power of Free Will

Remember that you get to choose your perceptions and thoughts, which dictate your feelings and behavior. Practicing Conscious Discipline develops your conscious awareness, which gives you the opportunity to make a choice. This ability to choose is the basis of free will.

Pay attention to your “make me” language. Change have to and make me to I’m going to. Change should to could. What will you choose?

With children, focus on connection instead of coercion. Change your job description to: My job is to keep you safe. When we focus on safety instead of judgment, we can calm the lower centers of the brain, make connections and exercise free will.

Next, instead of asking, “How can I get children to stay on task?” or, “How can I make children listen?” ask, “How can I help children successfully ____________?”

When you change the question, you ask your brain to come up with a different set of answers. The first question looks for coercion and manipulation. The second question looks for helpful solutions. These new answers will result in developmentally appropriate discipline strategies that honor each child’s needs and allow you to teach vital skills.

Finally, to help children access their Power of Free Will, provide two positive choices instead of one positive and one negative. Asking a child, “Do you want to help clean up or do you want to go to time-out?” is not really a choice.

Instead, ask, “Do you want to pick up the dolls first or the blocks?” This shifts from manipulating children to helping children practice making choices and using their Power of Free Will.

Final Thoughts: Power of Free Will

Free will gives us the power to appraise any situation and make a wise choice. To access our Power of Free Will instead of a pre-programmed reaction, we must get to the higher center of the brain.

When you feel yourself getting triggered and wanting to blame or attack, pause. Take deep, calming breaths and remember that you alone are in charge of your perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behavior. Whatever you do next, the choice is yours.

The same is true of children. Attempts to control children will only frustrate us, strip children of their willpower and self-worth, and lead to a cycle of blame. Relationships are damaged, responsibility and accountability are avoided, and problem solving becomes impossible.

There is another choice. We can choose connection and helpfulness over coercion and manipulation. We can choose to foster cooperation through connection, provide guidance and teach helpful skills, and allow children to make choices that promote responsibility and self-worth.

Take hold of your Power of Free Will and remember that while the behavior of others is beyond your control, your behavior is not. Controlling and changing ourselves is possible and has a profound impact on everyone around us. Together, we can make a difference by letting go of the need to control others, putting the emphasis on controlling ourselves, and choosing to be the change we want to see.

Next Steps

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