I have an extremely smart, extremely independent 5 year old daughter. She's turning 6 in a couple of months.

This year in particular, starting her reception year at school, she has a lot less free time to her disposal. We have a regular routine, which we have always found to be very helpful for having stability in her life.

School for the morning until 1pm, afternoons to play, 5pm dinner, 6-8pm bedtime. Saturdays are free, Sundays have church and a play date, and then afternoons free. 1-2 hours of screen time a week.

Over the past couple of weeks (basically since school started in January), she's expressed a feeling of being out of control of her life. She said things like 'I have no choice!' or 'when can I do what I want to do?!'. I point out to her she has hours to play in the afternoons.

She has obligations, like cleaning up her toys/activities after herself, cleaning her plate after dinner, helping with the laundry, etc. There is a lot of grumbling and moaning and stamping of feet for these tasks.

I can see she feels stifled and stuck in her own life. And while we all need to get used to having obligations and doing things we don't feel like doing, I am also at a loss for how to help her feel like she has more control over her life. How can I offer her control and independence, that she very clearly needs, while also keeping to our (unfortunately quite fixed and necessary) schedule?

  • How (much) do you involve her in the choices about clothes to wear/buy, what to eat for dinner, which activities to do during free time, …? Do you clearly mention/label those moments as “you can now choose what you want to …”?
    – AsheraH
    Feb 8 at 21:02
  • @AsheraH I have recently started saying, when she gets home from school, "you're free to play now until 5pm!" And on weekends, especially Saturdays, she really enjoys the whole day off. She chooses her own clothes to wear, and I give her healthy food to eat but don't expect her to eat everything. Free time she can do anything she wants as long as it's safe, reasonable and not particularly disruptive to the rest of the family.
    – stan
    Feb 9 at 7:11
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    What has changed when school started last January? Did she start attending school (and thus loose half of her free time), or did school itself shift more from "learn by playing" to structured instruction, or something else? Feb 9 at 8:11
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau she was in school last year as well, however she did have a month of school holiday in between over Christmas that is more recently in her memory. School is slightly more structured now compared to last year, and an hour longer per day, but it's not academic really at all, they learn a lot through play. She loves school.
    – stan
    Feb 10 at 17:27

2 Answers 2


I wrote the answer for my specific situation (below), but I think there is also a general lesson here, which I'll also answer as well.

I don't think it's necessarily the schedule, a family can have a reasonably busy schedule without it being problematic, and the definition of 'reasonably busy' can vary from one family to another. So the solution isn't necessarily to alter the schedule, although that may help if the child simply isn't getting enough time alone.

Instead, I think the solution instead can come down to the quality of the child's alone time, and the attitude of the parents.

1) Quality of the childs' time.

Are they able to do what they want to during this time, or are they interrupted? Three hours in the afternoon can feel not truly hers if she's interrupted by someone else, or called upon to do something else. Letting her choose when/where/what to play within reason, without comment from parents and without other obligations can help her feel like her time is truly hers.

2) Giving control where you can.

It is easy to exert too much control, especially since parents have been through years of infancy/toddlerhood where more control and supervision is necessary. Backing off is important as kids get older, and this includes not commenting or criticising the childs' choices.

The typical parenting advice in this regard is to giving them practical choices like what to wear, what part of their dinner they choose to eat (or not), etc. I'd extend this to say that it also comes down to really listening to the child and seriously considering what they want to do as a potential option. Pretty much anything that is safe, appropriate and healthy is on the cards. Do that want to sleep on the floor? sure! Do they want to wear their vest over their shirt? sure! Do they want to put tomato sauce on their corn flakes? sure! (but maybe only one bite with tomato sauce? just in case you don't like it).

And not 'ugh, okay' kind of sure. Try not to undermine their choice. Even commentary on their choices can make them feel like subconsciously they're not making the right ones. And most kids will want to please their parents. Which makes them feel like they have to make one choice over another. Which leads me to...

3) Attitude of the parents.

At this age, at least my almost-six year old, can understand most reasonable explanations. I really try to listen, consider her seriously, answer her questions as best I can, and treat her with respect. I avoid 'because I say so'. I think of why, and I explain why as best I can.

I think it really comes down to the attitude of the parents. The way that they treat their child, listen to their child, encourage their child to make choices and take control as much as they can. To give reasonable explanations. Subtle undermining the child's choices, not paying attention to them or really listening to what they say, not having family time, can all make the child feel like they are not participants in the family, but rather passengers who are carried along. Allowing a child to have an impact on the family in their way, gives them a sense of control.

Just taking the time to talk to her about what was wrong, and caring enough to sit down and really listen to her, helped me get to the bottom of this.

(here below, is my specific answer of what I did in this case).

I spent some time talking to my daughter about this over the weekend, and we came up with a plan together.

I waited until we were playing and said that she'd seemed pretty upset this week after getting home from school, and I asked if she could help me figure out why and how we can make things easier.

She said that sometimes she doesn't feel like talking to me immediately after school. We're both introverts, and I know that school can be socially draining for her, so it seems I need to give her even more space after school than I usually do.

She also expressed frustration at being disturbed in the middle of an activity in the afternoons, mid-play. I'd ask her to come help me in the kitchen and expect her to come immediately.

So together we made a plan:

  • Giving her more space in the afternoon directly after school. I don't ask direct questions about her day, but I do make non-direct statements. I've been thinking about other options for the ride home, like listen to music.

  • Setting aside a dedicated "chore time" where I expect her to do her chores/help me in the kitchen, and I don't request her to do her chores mid-play.

This seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Sometimes, the easiest solution is just to ask "can you help me understand..." and see what they say.


It depends on what you really mean by the question.

If you literally mean, ‘how can my daughter BE in control of her life?’ (rather than just FEEL in control), there are several things you could do:

  1. You could pull her out of school. I’m guessing she’s in school against her will, like most children. If you don’t think that’s the case, ask yourself whether you would honor her desire to stop going to school if she expressed it (more on meaningful consent below).
  2. Stop imposing bedtimes.
  3. Stop imposing screen times.
  4. Stop taking her to church. Most children hate church – it’s mind-numbingly boring and teaches them to suspend reason in favor of mysticism. (It also exposes them to creepy people who are into kids. Best to avoid those environments.)
  5. Let her play for as long as she wants. You say, almost plaintively, “she has hours to play in the afternoons”, but time that’s filled with fun always passes by quickly. To her, having her playtime restricted feels arbitrary and cruel (because it is). Also keep in mind that playtime is the time she learns the most. It’s also the time she gets to freely pursue her interests. Letting her play for as long as she wants will go a long way to increasing her control over her own life. You write in a comment that you tell her “you're free to play now until 5pm!” but that isn’t her being in control, that’s you being in control.
  6. Stop burdening her with 'obligations' like chores. Did she meaningfully agree1 to being responsible for those chores? I doubt it, in which case those are unchosen burdens. “There is a lot of grumbling and moaning and stamping of feet for these tasks.” Good.

She sounds good at communicating her desires and grievances. That’s an important skill for living a happy and healthy life. Giving her more control should be as easy as listening to her, taking her grievances seriously, and acting accordingly.

You say your schedule is necessary, and I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t be able to change it all at once. I don’t know your situation but maybe you and your wife are both at work during the day so somebody needs to watch her, in which case school seems like the only option. But you could still stop imposing screen times, bed times, chores, and dragging her to church.

You say “we all need to get used to having obligations and doing things we don‘t feel like doing” – but that isn’t really true. Apart from paying taxes or being drafted, stuff like that, adults don’t typically have obligations they didn’t agree to. She will learn soon enough that life sometimes requires us to do things we don’t want, but it’s not necessary to hoist that on her now. Let her be a child.

If instead you mean, ‘how can I coax my daughter into thinking she has control while subjecting her to the same amount of control as before?’, then I cannot help you and you should rethink your approach.

1 Meaningful consent is difficult to determine, especially for children. Adults have created a world where children do not meaningfully get to say ‘no’, and children know this, so even an explicit ‘yes’ does not necessarily mean they fully consent. Meaningful consent involves counterfactuals and conscientiousness; one of the necessary conditions for consent is that you would back off is she asked you to (even if she never does), and that you’re sensitive to conditions and situations where she might feel a desire to ask you to back off but suppresses this desire, in which case you’d back off yourself without her asking you to.

  • Would any of the downvoters care to explain why they disagree with my answer? Is it that you think lack of coercion means neglect? Feb 11 at 21:09
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    Young children live too much in the present to oversee the future consequences of their choices (where future can even be tomorrow), or to connect consequences they experience with choices made in the past. For that reason, it is irresponsible to let go of all boundaries and let a young child be fully in control of their life. Feb 12 at 7:33
  • And as we are living in a society, personal freedom has its limits where it touches on the personal freedoms of others. Learning how to deal with that is one important element of growing up.
    – Stephie
    Feb 12 at 8:18
  • It's a shame that this answer is so off-base, because the first couple of lines really made me think. I do want her to be in control (and not just have an illusion of feeling in control). But as a responsible parent I also want her to be in control in ways that are safe, reasonable and age appropriate. Letting her do whatever she wants all day, every day, would be irresponsible, and that level of control over her own life is not age appropriate. However, I will be working towards that level of control over the next decade. I anticipate that by the time she's 16 or so, she'll have it.
    – stan
    Feb 12 at 13:05
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau You can explain and persuade a child of the long-term consequences of certain actions. No coercion needed. For example, I was persuaded as a child that brushing my teeth is a good idea due to the long-term consequences of not brushing them. Feb 12 at 19:44

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