David Heinemeier Hansson

November 22, 2021

Authoritarian hippie parents

There was a time when liberal ideals of self-determination, self-regulation, and free-range independence naturally extended to parenting as well. Such ideals were seen in stark opposition to conservative parenting based on obedience, discipline, and reverence. Today it seems like these roles are often reversed.

The strictest parents I have encountered since we had kids a decade ago are those who'd be flattered to be called hippies. They're not obsessed with honoring god or country, like the old authoritarians (though they have their own cultural religions), but they're just as keen to shield their kids from the devils of the day. Be that screen time or sugar or other moral or bodily corruptions.

In fact, the appeal of purity somehow seems even stronger with this modern authoritarian crowd. And it often manifests itself in some incredibly harsh restrictions for their kids, lest they be contaminated by the evils of the world.

Where such parents will usually recognize – or even celebrate! – that kids should play in the dirt, because exposing their immune system to the variety of natural bacteria is good for it, they fail to apply the same principle to the rest of the body or the mind.

The mission of parenting is not merely to protect kids from the "dangers" of childhood, but to grant them the freedom to make the mistakes needed to prepare for adulthood. For when their authoritarian roles must be retired, and they can no longer police temptations.

Yet it seems so many hippie parents of today are petrified that even small doses of impurity might forever corrupt the brood. And with this fear comes the kind of harsh sanctions and limitations that the actual hippies of the 70s or 80s would have (presumably or in my idealized image) frowned upon. All under the same banners used by the old authoritarians of "I'm doing what I know is best for you" and "you'll thank me when you're older". Psh.

Don't even get me started on using "screen time" as a useful category of restriction. Equating TikTok with Minecraft with Wikipedia with YouTube makes as little sense as equating Harry Potter with Hustler Magazine. The latter two technically both fall under "print material", but that's hardly a useful categorization.

But even if we disregard this point, I think the key lesson is this: You cannot convey the lessons of moderation by imposing your own limits. And moderation is where wisdom lies, not abstinence (I thought the hippies were on board with that when it came to sexuality!). To teach moderation, you must allow someone to overstep their own limits. To find the line by crossing it.

This means eating enough candy till you feel sick. This means playing enough video games to make your eyes hurt. This means binging on a few shows till you can't stand them.

If you approve of every choice your child is making at every turn, your grip is far too tight. They can not grow without making some bad choices.

Cultivating an internal sense of moderation and aspiration in your kids is one of the finest accomplishments you can achieve as a parent. Planting seeds by showing them a wide array of options, engaging with their choices, and being there after they inevitably screw some of it up. That's love.

This is hard. Letting someone fail or falter, just a bit, without intervening is a test of patience and long-term thinking. Correcting everything on the spot is the adult version of failing the marshmallow test.

If we are to have new generations of independent, critical thinkers, we need them to be self-driven children first.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.