On Parenting: Consensual Living

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.


On Parenting: Consensual Living

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.

The Fisherman's Children - Jules Bastien-Lepage
The Fisherman's Children - Jules Bastien-Lepage

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

Autism · My world

Charge now! Think later.

Peter Nicolai Arbo – Valkyries

My mother pointed out this letter to the editor in the Oregonian this weekend. 

 Misjudging a meltdown
My child was having a meltdown at a Target store one recent day. A man walked past us, shaking his head. He turned around, stared at us and rolled his eyes. He was probably thinking, “What kind of parent puts up with that terrible behavior?”

Let me tell you what kind of parent I am. I am the mother of a daughter with autism. Stores are a challenge for my daughter. She does her best to “behave” and I do my best to help her cope.

This man saw me attempting to calm a child who was crying and running away. He misjudged the situation.

I will not lock my child away to avoid getting dirty looks from people like him. He made my day more unpleasant, but he will never make me ashamed of my child. He should be ashamed. LISA S. COOK Southeast Portland

We all talked about it for a while.  My mother’s take was interesting; on first glance she said that she really felt for the woman in the letter.  She and my father have been with Rachel when she was having a meltdown.  A particular situation happened in Baskin Robins one day when they had to take her out of the shop because she wanted cake instead of ice-cream and had a complete meltdown.  But, then my mom said she started to feel sorry for the guy too.  Yes, it is awful to have people stare at your child, to see that look of disdain as they turn away smug that they wouldn’t put up with that behavior.  But the reality is they just don’t understand.  They function in a world where autism is something you hear about on the news, or they know that a co-worker or neighbor’s child is autistic and that child doesn’t act-up so horribly.   She felt the letter in the end had been written with the hope that the offending gentleman would read it and be embarrassed by it.

My husband and I are both sympathetic, but our response was more along the lines of “Poor Ms Cook, just wait until her daughter is a little older.  Those rolled-eyed, ‘what a bad parent you must be’ looks are absolutely nothing compared to the looks you get when you have to physically drag your pre-teen out of a public place.”  When you are packing an eleven year old girl out of the mall with her kicking and screaming you are far, far more concerned about what you are going to say to security when they stop you then you are the thoughts of random people staring.  Of course we have to laugh looking back at how many times we have wanted to say something to the people who stare or maybe just melt into the floor because the situation has gotten embarrassing.  So we really do feel for this lady and we hope that her daughter out-grows the tantrums.   Until and unless that happens, really, what can you say – people are going to stare at some point you have to come to terms with it.

Assuming that Ms Cook’s assessment of the man’s thoughts is accurate the title is correct he misjudged a meltdown.  But, in his defense it is pretty easy to do.  Autistic kids don’t look different.  In fact, unless you actually know what to look for (that far away look in the eyes, the repetitive movement, and sometimes very subtle little signs) there is no way to tell.  How do you tell a tantruming four year old who is autistic from a tantruming four year old who isn’t?  I don’t know and I have a good bit of experience with both autistic and non-autistic tantrums.  So I guess personally I am willing, in principle, to cut the random stranger some slack.

Now I say in principle because I happen to have not always exactly lived up to my live and let live philosophy.  Once, when Rachel was about five, we were in a Fred Meyer’s store (sort of like a cross between a Safeway and a Target for those not in the Northwest) and Rachel had a complete meltdown over this ugly, yet expensive, metal Halloween pumpkin decoration that I was not going to buy.  She cried and fell on the floor and was just having an all out tantrum of the first degree.  I was tired, frustrated, embarrassed and this woman with her teenage daughter walked by.  “I never let you act like that when you were that age!” she said in sotto voce designed for me to hear yet giving her the illusion that she was trying to be discrete.  I let her have it.  As in I LET . HER . HAVE . IT.  I turned on her with murder in my eyes and in as controlled and flat and furious a voice as I could manage I said something like, “Oh, yeah lady, well my kid is autistic and you have no bloody idea what you are talking about, I am doing the best I can.  If you would like to get over here and show me how to parent my child better then I do be my guest!  Other wise don’t be such a jackass.” Not my finest moment, I will admit.  I think I scared the woman half to death, she was about a foot shorter than me, a good ten to fifteen years older and not in anywhere near the physical condition I was in.  I probably looked like I was ten seconds or less from beating someone to a bloody pulp and she was the nearest, handy person.  She looked very upset and shocked and stammered, “Oh no, no, I’m really sorry, you are doing really great – really!” 

That is one of those moments in my life that I really am conflicted about.  On one hand I am sort of proud.  I said it and at the time I meant it.  I put the woman in her place, she was being rude and I think I had a valid point.  On the other hand I am also rather shamed by it.  I was embarrassed, stressed, upset and emotionally unhinged at the time – none of that had anything to do with her, it had to do with the situation and it was wrong to take all that out on her the way I did over her ignorant, self congratulatory statement.  I find it amusing that I can feel both emotions simultaneously.  It was definitely a moment where I spoke first and thought second, but sometimes ‘mommy rage’ charges ahead even against our better natures.


Fun · My world

Becoming a lanky young man

Christopher is a good big brother


Christopher surprised me the other day.  Lately I have been noticing little changes in him.  He reads more than he used to just for his own pleasure.  He has a deep sense of honor and wants to be brave and noble.  He is less emotional, less whiny, more capable of plucking himself up and getting on with whatever unpleasant task he is facing.  But the thing that surprised me was just how tall he is getting.

My little boy is growing up.  His arms are long, his legs are long and his body is stringy long.  He has taken to climbing trees and swinging out of them, riding his bike endlessly and running when ever possible.   I love this new phase.   


What can you do with 1/4 a yard of fabric?

Make a prom dress!

A Houston teen couldn’t get into her prom because her dress was scandalous (CNN Video) and then got herself cuffed when the police were called because she started demanding her money back (I read that as making a royal scene in the hotel lobby)  The dress, besides being hideous covered about as much skin as a two piece swimsuit and was completely  inappropriate for a high school prom.  The countdown for the inevitable lawsuit has begun.


This is more my style.

I went to two proms and seriously they are so over-rated to begin with.   But to get the cops called on you because you insist on wearing the latest “Almost a dress” to a school function says a great deal.  It is just astounding.