Myth Series #3: Kids Need Structure

We've seen it hundreds of times. A parent enforces bedtimes, against the obvious will of the child. The days are planned carefully, with enriching activities scheduled out by the minute. Playtime is defined and controlled and scheduled. Many of the things a child does in a day - from when to arise to what to wear to what to eat to who they interact with and what they do - are presented in a tightly bound package that sometimes gives the illusion of free choice, but which in actuality removes almost all aspects of the child's free choice from the equation. Sometimes it looks like this; sometimes it is less severe. And, of course, sometimes it is even more restrictive that I have illustatred here. And if the child goes to school, it is even worse.

When questioned, parents and educators who work with their children in this way rely on a simple catchphrase to support their decisions: "Children need/want/thrive with structure." In many respects, I don't really disagree with this statement; I have seen for my own eyes that many kids do like structure, and thrive within it.

But . . . . as a sometimes public speaker, wannabe writer, and frequent pontificator, I have come to believe over the years that our choice of words has deep meaning. As such, we need to be careful about the words we use, how we define them, and the meanings that they convey. I DO believe that kids need structure. But when people say this, I think they really mean something very different.

Structure does not, by definition or intent, mean rigid. Structure does not mean unbending. Structure does not mean coercive, or manipulative. Structure does not imply the restriction of choice. No, structure, at its most direct, simply means a framework within which we live our lives and make our moment-to-moment and day-to-day decisions.

I think kids need that structure; after all, we all need some sort of guardrails to help us in our lives, very general rules and ideas to help us define our worlds and our places within them.

But this structure can and could be an authentic one, guided not by the needs of the parent or the conventions of a society mired in 100 year-old parenting techniques, but by the desires and passions and interests of the child. This structure can and could be focused on possibilities, guided not by restrictive "reality"-focused thoughts about what is and is not productive, but by the world of what could come to be, if only we were allowed to dream it. This structure can and could be one based on support, guided not by rules and punishments, but by love and respect and communication and learning.

If you pay attention to your kids - really, really pay attention and follow instead of lead - I bet that nine times out of ten they will show you ways of viewing things that you never knew existed. Kids do need structure, but their version of structure can and likely will look different from the way we would imagine it. To a child, structure may look like "I have a play date this week," instead of "I can play from 1:00 - 2:00pm tomorrow." To a child a structure may look like "I wonder what food we have in the house," instead of "I have to eat the food on my plate." To a child, structure may look like "I am interested in this, and I have the resources I need to pursue that interest," instead of "I have to learn something else now, because the clock says I have to."
In other words, children do like and perhaps need structure; it is just a looser structure, a "possibility oriented" structure, a fun and want-based structure that is based on what makes sense to the child instead of being for the convenience of the adult.

"But Jeff," you say, "that is so short sighted. Kids don't know what they need, and in the absence of structure they'll be all over the place." Will they be all over the place? Yes, probably, at least for a while. Is that short-sighted? Absolutely not. The world is a changing place, a challenging place, and our children will face with perils and opportunities that are literally beyond our comprehension. They will need new ways of thinking, new ways or working, new ways of viewing the world and solving problems. Which person is more likely to be able to do that - the child who had few choices, rigid guidelines, and had their thoughts and actions controlled, or the child who was taught to define the world through their own eyes, in their own way and time, with the knowledge that there isn't really even a box to think outside of?

Don't believe me?

I offer you Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Gandhi - you name it, the people who truly change the world for the better have all done so because of their creativity, their passion, and their sense of what is possible rather than what is not. That comes from defining structure in their own ways, but never through rigidity, coercion, or the restriction of choice.


  1. Glad to see the series continuing. My thoughts are with you.

  2. I heard you on this. My daily challenge is to reconcile the different patterns and rhythms of three children. A night owl and a morning lark means I am a bit worn in the middle!

    Certainly my 6 year old makes no distinction between work and play in the way you describe and is as likely to read fiction as she is a science dictionary because no one has told her that it isn't cool or isn't done.

  3. nicely said! i've done lots of experiments, ahem, and what it all comes down to is happiness and love. if you want to learn to stop yelling at your kids to "get things done", quit being an asshole.

  4. Absolutely agree!! I've become the oddball around b/c I don't set a "bedtime" for my children, or leave a gathering with friends b/c my children have a schedule. We live our life, and it suits us just fine. I am not tired at the same time everyday, and wouldn't subject myself to adhering to a "bedtime".... And, sometimes I don't feel like broccoli, even though I love it, and so they have choices... Their alternative is comparable. I'm sharing this on my FB :)

  5. "possibility-oriented" -- I love it. Thanks for this post, Jeff.

  6. Excellent! I have found that my kids want/need structure of some sort, but what that structure is, is really my consistently offering myself to them, to assist them in their projects, read to them, etc. It is easy to get too caught up in housework, etc., and I use a loose schedule to rein myself in. They appreciate that focused time I can offer them. Having been brought up with schooling, myself, it is always tempting to turn my schedule into theirs, and to turn them into a captive audience, but I have enough experience now to know that doesn't go well!