The Headgates Principle

Our individual agency, or free choice, is a wonderful gift from God. However, because we are free to choose, we can make choices that will bring us joy, or we can choose things that will cause physical, emotional, and sprititual harm. Our job as parents is provide a safe environment for our children to practice using their agency. So how do we allow our children choice, but still protect them from damaging influences? By controlling the “headgates” of our homes.

I first learned the following analogy from a free ebook called The Headgate by Brian and Keri Tibbets. These folks are home educators that use the Thomas Jefferson Education model. You might not agree with everything in this book but I believe that there are truths here that everyone would benefit from applying. I will briefly describe and discuss the main point of this book here, but you should definitely read the whole thing for yourself!

Once upon a time there was a farmer who needed to water his crops. He walked down the way and turned a handle which opened the headgate and allowed the irrigation water to flow into an adjacent channel. The water flowed forward as the farmer opened and closed headgates along the way to steer the water to where it would be best used by the crops. Because he was diligent in controlling the headgates, and thus the flow of water, the crops grew beautifully and effortlessly.

Just like this farmer, parents have been given the stewardship of opening and closing the headgates in the lives of their children. Each activity, experience, or influence that we allow into the lives of our children is a headgate. Their potential and energy to grow and develop is the flow of water.  It is up to us as parents to steer this energy into productive channels while still allowing our children their agency.

Each family will choose to open and close the headgates of their home differently, depending on the results the parents want for their children and the general culture they want in their home. Some common headgates you may want to consider intentionally controlling are: What books are allowed to come into your home, the types of toys your children have access to, the number of toys your children have access to, TV, video games, apps, food options, extra curricular activities, and how much time is spent with friends.

When deciding which headgates to close or open, keep in mind that most children, if given a choice, will choose the activity that gives them them most stimulation for the least amount of effort. Therefore, if overstimulating headgates are left unchecked (TV, video games, apps, some types of toys etc) you can expect that your children will choose to flow through those headgates as often as allowed.

With overstimulating headgates open, our children may struggle to learn to be truly creative. You see, the more a toy or screen does for a child, the less the child’s brain has to do. This is why children who live in overstimulating environments often complain of being bored. Their brains are not used to having to put forth any effort to to create, discover, or imagine on their own. They have become dependent on external stimulus to be entertained. In large measure, this is why today’s youth see reading and learning as boring. When they say they are bored, what they mean is that their brains are used to a high level of intense stimulation and they don’t get that same level of stimulation from a book or a classroom. If we provide a more natural, low-stimulation environoment, our children’s brains will be able to enjoy simple things and develop their own ability to be creative, stay focused, and feel joy.

By controlling headgates, we can let our children safely learn to use their agency and become self-governing adults. To use another analogy, imagine going to a restaurant with your rich uncle and he tells you that you can order whatever you want! What he means is that you can have anything on the menu. As parents, we control the menu of activities and influences we allow in our homes. Our children are free to choose anything that is on the menu. If you notice that a certain “menu item” is not healthy for your child, you can change the menu so that no matter what he chooses, he will be safe and healthy.

Obviously we cannot control all the influences in our children’s lives–nor should we try to.  However, there is much that the world offers our children that is not enriching or edifying. We want our children to understand the difference between right and wrong, and to have a desire to choose what is right. The goal is not to force their choice. The goal is to expose our children to the good and beautiful influences that will deepen their appreciation for life and enable them to make choices that will bring them joy.

Check out this presentation about raising children in the digital age by Dr. Gordon Neufeld for the most recent neuroscience on how screens affect our children.


7 thoughts on “The Headgates Principle

  1. I completely agree with this concept! And I’ve definitely noticed a difference with the amount of tv, movies, screen time, and sugar and can see a direct correlation with how it affects my children’s behavior. I liked the point of how much time is spent with friends and extra curricular too. I hadn’t thought much about these but will remember the importance of balancing this aspect as well for my family in the future. Great post!

  2. Oh we’ve learned so much since we innocently brought home our first Atari game! Little did we understand how technology would invade every aspect of our lives.
    I love the concept of parents as “gatekeepers”…explicitly teaching this to young children (and learning it as parents) lays a beautiful groundwork for making our homes safe havens and nurturing our children and grandchildren to be their best selves.

  3. I whole heartedly agree with this post! I confess to the struggle with worldly influences that seem to be constantly at the foot of the gate. I liked how this focused on what our responsibility is as parents to immerse our children with as much of the good influences so that they can be wise agents. Sometimes I feel so quiet next to the loud voices of the world competing for my kids attention, but this gives me direction. I am the keeper of the flood gate- I love that analogy.

  4. It’s absolutely true that my children are less prone to be “bored” and more inclined to deal reasonably with other humans when their media time is limited. But how do we balance that reality with the knowledge that our children will need to be tech savvy in this digital era?

    1. You raise a very good point!
      I really like the analogy Dr. Neufeld uses in this talk. He says that screens and social media etc are just fine, but we need to view these things as “dessert” and not the main course. We need to fill our children with wholesome, nourishing experiences that will help them develop into healthy, competent adults and when they are full of the good stuff, they are welcome to have screen time.
      We just need to be careful because just like a diet of junk food destroys one’s appetite for nutritious food, a steady diet of screen time can cause people (children and adults) to lose the desire for and the ability to build deep face-to-face relationships.

  5. I appreciate your reference to this article and your additional thoughts!! When I first read the Headgates article, I made a pivotal swing in how I parent and I how I homeschool. I can attest that I have seen nothing but good from trying to adhere to these principles. I think one must keep in mind that these are principles, but the fleshing out of what you offer in your home environment will depend on the personality, strengths, and needs of the family in each season. This is not a binding/ constricting idea for children or adults, but a fluid/ evolving way of structuring life that actually allows children to be free! Their minds are free to engage in what their soul is truly hungry for.

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