While reading around earlier this week I stumbled on something new: Consensual Living. The basic philosophy seems to go something like this: All members of the family have equal say and all decisions that aren’t obviously life or death type things get negotiated until everyone is happy with the solution. No “rules”, “chores”, or “authoritarian limits” everyone’s needs and wants are weighed equally in the decision making. Parents need to think through even a nonverbal child’s emotional reactions and find empathetic solutions. Rules and limits, requirements, chores, grades, behavior expectations…. normal life or an authoritarian regime forced onto children making them nothing but soulless automatons, cogs in mindless wheel. Consensual Living questions just about every supposition about what it means to parent you can think of.
As with most parenting fads this one has a core of good idea wrapped in an idealistic layer and dipped into a complete lack of common sense. There is nothing wrong with wanting your child to be an active participant in the family, there is nothing wrong with listening to your children’s thoughts and opinions and teaching them positive conflict resolution. But Consensual Living takes it too far.
So, giving this parenting style its fair shake I will look at the good things first:
Children can (at times) be reasonable and reasoned with. Children do have the ability to reason and understand. If your take a few moments to explain in simple, straight-forward language why your child must wear sun-screen or a bike helmet you may find them completely co-operative. Children also respond well when you take the time to let them explain their feelings. Sometimes what I have thought was a problem turned out to be a misunderstanding. My 3 year old is absolutely terrified of having her hair washed, if we tell her she has to take a bath she will say “No, hairwash”, if we agree and say “No hairwash tonight” she is more than happy to hop into the tub. Her problem is not with the bath itself, only with the hairwashing.
Treating children with respect is important. Children are human beings with the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Shaming or embarrassing a child is almost never acceptable. It is especially important when children are communicating their needs that they be listened to. I witnessed an extreme example of this when I was a teenager working in a children’s clothing store. A young girl, maybe four, was in the store with her mother. The girl told her mother she needed to use the restroom. The mother at first ignored the girl. After repeated requests the mother began to grow impatient with her daughter. The situation deteriorated to the point where the little girl was doing the “potty-dance”, so I informed the woman that we had a restroom in the rear of the store that she was welcomed to use. This offer was declined and the woman continued shopping. After a little while the mother brought her selections to the checkout and while I was ringing them up the little girl wet herself. The mother lost it at this point and scolded the girl, complete with a swat to the tush, for soiling herself. The only thing that kept me from flipping out at the mother was my utter shock that this was taking place at all.
Teaching problem solving skills is very productive. I agree with the consensual living idea of learning problem solving skills and interpersonal negotiation techniques in real life situations. Children who can learn to express their needs and wants and compromise to find a productive and workable solution have a valuable life skill. My children have to learn to compromise in many areas, that is one of the realities of living in a large family. They have to compromise on what story they have read, what movie they get to watch, which outing they go on. Frequently we add a bit of incentive by explaining that if they don’t agree to one thing we won’t do anything. They also have to learn to express their own needs and listen to what other’s are saying in a respectful way.
A peaceful non-confrontational home is a benefit to all family members. I completely agree that peace and harmony are, if not necessary, highly desirable in a home. A family who lives in a constant state of disharmony can’t be satisfactory. The Consensual living advocates also seem to recognize the blessings of quiet time. I am also picked up from reading on their site a recognition that most families are over-scheduled, over-worked and just basically so drained by their busy lives that they barely have the energy to interact sensibly, much less have the ability to create a peaceful home atmosphere. When too much of a families energy is directed to outside pursuits the outside pursuits come to dominate the energy inside the home as well. I can see this being a huge drawing point for overworked parents and their over-scheduled off-spring.
Children naturally learn from their parents example. Modeling the behavior we wish to see in our children is the best way to ensure that children learn this behavior. Actions speak louder than words is rock solid truth in parenting. No matter how much we want to raise kind and gentle children our children are not likely to be kind or gentle if we are harsh and aggressive. With something like smoking I could see not being a good example doing just as well being a horrible warning, but for things like temperament modeling the best behavior is almost the only way to ensure that a child will incorporate that behavior in their own lives.
Next… the not so good