On Parenting: Consensual Living

April 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Last week I looked at a parenting style called Consensual Living.  I began by going over the points that I agree with.

Zwei Kinder - Eugene de Blaas

Zwei Kinder - Eugene de Blaas

Now to the points that I disagree with.

Children are not always reasonable and sometimes can not be reasoned with. Anyone who has ever had to deal with a small child who refused to go to bed because something exciting might be missed can attest to this point.   While one of Consensual Living’s principles is that “children can be trusted to know their own minds and bodies” this is not always the case.  Not at any age. Heavens, adults have a difficult enough time telling their real biological needs from their wants.   This is equally true from the nursing infant who can’t decide if he is more sleepy than hungry to the teenage daughter who can’t tell her hormonal drives from real affection.   Many times a parent’s superior experience is invaluable to children in guiding them to do what is best when they are willing and compelling them to do it  if they become unreasonable.
Discipline is very important.  I am not meaning in the “do as I say or else” sense of the word, but in the “do hard things” sense of the word.   Self discipline is not natural to a child, it is learned.   Concepts like delayed gratification, fiscal discipline, healthy living, self-moderation are all integral to happy and harmonious life.  I find it very ironic that a parenting style which displays, especially in the early years, a great deal of self-denial and dedication on the part of the parent seems almost designed to produce adults who have little to no familiarity with the concept.

A child who is in the perpetual habit of always negotiating every point to which they disagree is in for one heck of a shock when they have to interface with the real world.  Not everything can be compromised, at times you have to buckle down and do things you don’t like, have no interest in and sometimes can’t even see the point of doing in the first place.  Children who do not learn this will be less capable of doing the “hard things” in life that make them successful in reaching their own goals, or even having a job.  No teacher can negotiate 30 sets of rules, no police officer is going to accept that you really are the world’s best backwards driver, no boss is going to renegotiate a deadline because you really need to enjoy a nice spring day.  In the real world compromise is not always part of the deal.
Children are not developmentally prepared for the responsibility of being equal partners in running the household I am in no way against letting children have some say in the running of the home, especially when something is affecting them directly, but they don’t have equal say because they don’t have equal responsibility.   Now I don’t really fault anyone who misses this point, because society at large seems to miss it, but every right has a responsibility attached.  My three year old doesn’t want to have her hair washed.  According to Consensual Living I should rethink the basic idea of “have to”.  Why should she “have to” have her hair washed.  It is after all her hair and she can (according to Consensual Living) determine her own needs.  So what difference does it really make if she has gross, matted, dirty hair?  But it is also my responsibility to make sure her basic needs are met, including being clean at times this can go against her wishes.

Boundaries and rules are not bad things – in fact most children thrive within them and are lost without them. I am a big proponent for “that’s just the way it is” parenting.    Bedtime is 8:30pm, you have to brush your teeth, you aren’t allowed to play if you start hitting people– that’s just the way it is.   Having an autistic child taught me the value of schedules, rules and expectations.   When family life predictable everyone benefits.
Teaching children to respect authority, respect other people and instilling in them a sense of duty is important. I suppose it is a bit old fashioned to talk about respect and duty, but I firmly believe that they are things we need to be teaching our children.   Consensual Living hopes that by modeling empathy and concern for others children will follow that example and from natural good will begin to act in a manner that will reward the parent in producing a child who is sensitive to  other’s wants and needs.  Never mind that all  historical and experiential evidence claim that that less likely than more to happen.

Consensual living is not the only way, nor necessarily the best way, to achieve harmony in the home. Certainly leaving behind rules, “have tos”,  and any form of discipline will led to less conflict in the home.  If you allow your child to wear the same cat costume day after day there will never be a fight over clothing,  but the same can be achieved by simple and consistent routine.

Years ago I remember reading in a parenting magazine about a mother who avoided those “getting dressed” struggles because her daughter insisted on wearing only purple.  The mother bought her little sweety a completely purple wardrobe and all tension of getting dressed in the morning ceased.    I remember being amazed that such poorly thought out advice ever managed to be published… but there it was.  How did a mother ever managed to get herself into such a loosing position that she would have to be arguing with a small child about what to wear?

Preschoolers are notoriously fickle and distractable.  Even if mother had to physically stuff her little dumpling into a yellow frock the entire incident would have been forgotten by her child by the time mother had finished reading a story or driving to a play date.   I can think of almost nothing more damaging to the long term happiness of a child than teaching them that the world will and should bend to their whims.

The harmony achieved by never enforcing any expectation or rule is very dearly bought and I can not help but believe that it is bought at the expense of the child’s long term happiness.

Children learn from more than just example. I have touched on this previously, but this concept deserves a more explicit treatment.  Consensual Living hopes that children will follow their parents’ example and learn the positive lessons of  empathy and concern for the needs of others and follow it.   Children do learn through example, but I fear that there is little native incentive to learn such things within Consensual Living if it is practiced to the letter.    What appears to happen in reality is that parents eventually break the Consensual Living philosophy of no manipulation and create a very manipulative environment where the parent is set bargaining with the child in order to get the child to do what the parent wants to child to do.

I am afraid that in practicality it is inevitable that a system that naturally rewards the one who is most stubborn in their wants is not conducive to teaching a child how to put the wants of other’s before their own.

When it comes to the tasks of daily living Consensual Living’s precepts are not designed for success.   A young child who is in the habit of having mother or father do everything for him is not going to suddenly turn around as an older child or teen and “get” that mom and dad would like help with the household chores.  They might be encouraged to do some work to get something they want, but altruism of the type that Consensual Living depends on is not best taught by this model and hope method.

A gentle but firm method of teaching a child directly how to do the simple tasks of daily living coupled with a predictable schedule and age appropriate behavior expectations is much more likely to produce children with the knowledge and experience they need to be successful in life.

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