I am revisiting thoughts on living with free children and being an adult (more specifically a parent) who does not hold a set of rules or expected behaviors for my child or any children I choose to associate myself with. What does that mean exactly? I do not carry around on paper or in my brain a list of things that a child can and can not do, like “no feet on the coffee table”, “don’t say fuck”, “no ‘sweets’ until after dinner”, “no playing on the stairs” or “you ‘have to’ give grandma a hug”.
Shall I talk more about the list I just made…
“no feet on the coffee table” — We don’t own one, but it wouldn’t be a rule regardless. If we were at someone’s house and either myself or my son had our feet on the coffee table, I don’t see why we would not honor our host’s request that we not have our feet on the table. My son might ask why and either our host or myself would say something along the lines of, “our shoes could scratch the wood or dirt from our feet/shoes might get on the table and make it messy”. No big deal.
“don’t say fuck” — I don’t feel as though there are ‘bad’ words, there are only words and some words effect some people differently…I freely use whatever words I feel I need to in the moment for clarity or emphasis and sometimes this means saying ‘fuck’ (or other ‘bad’ words). Can my five year old say the word ‘fuck’? Why yes, yes he can and a whole host of other words, as he has a very large vocabulary! Do I care if or when he says it? I don’t care if he says it, but it’s not a word that he reaches for and he has a much more fun time saying silly things like, ‘fishsticks’, ‘fishpaste’ and other more elaborate explicatives. I maybe sort of care when/how he says it, but not really..screaming it across a grocery store wouldn’t really be cool for either of us to do and if grandma has an issue with it, then he can choose to not say it so that grandma doesn’t get upset or he say it and realize that she’ll freak out when he does. Either way, when you make a big deal out of certain words it give those words much more power than others and the desire to try and ‘get away’ with saying them could turn into a constant thing. Oh, and if he did scream it across the store, I’d explain that in the future he might not want to do that, because the word upsets some people and it upsets most people when anything is screamed across a store.
“no ‘sweets’ until after dinner” — Are you kidding me? This really has more to do with weird control issues concerning adults, children and food or possibly a parent trying desperately to cling to or recreate an unrealistic misty-eyed vision of the whole family sitting down together every meal or every night. I could write a book on autonomy, food and children. Bottom line boils down to this: if you (including children) are hungry, then eat and if you want to eat ice cream for dinner, then do so. If you have health issues that don’t allow for excess sugar, then look for sugar free or low sugar frozen delectables. Seriously, no one will want to eat ice cream for dinner FOREVER; it might only seem like that for a little while if you start actually letting your children eat what they want and when they want…until they trust that you aren’t going to change your mind about your release of control over food. So what if it ‘ruins’ their dinner…they can eat leftovers when they are hungry later on.
“no playing on the stairs” — Here’s one of those ‘could be a safety issue’ things. What is meant by ‘no playing on the stairs’? Does that mean that we can’t sit on the bottom steps and play a card game? Does that mean we can’t slide down on cardboard with proper paddings & strategically placed pillows? Does that mean we can’t skip steps when going up? Does that mean that we can’t toss/roll a ball/slinky down and have someone at the bottom toss it back up? I am reaching here for things that children do on the stairs regularly that is considered ‘playing’. Possibly, we could warn an older child to mind his younger sibling or young friend when ‘playing’ on the stairs, so that s/he doesn’t get knocked down and fall down a flight of stairs, but that isn’t forbidding anyone from doing anything and it is just reminding someone of the ‘Principle’ of Safety.
“you ‘have to’ give grandma a hug” — NO, actually you don’t have to do anything with your body that you don’t want to…even something seemingly as innocent as giving grandma a hug or kiss. It might put grandma off or even hurt her feelings, but the fact remains that no one should force you to do anything with your body that you don’t feel like doing. I hear tell of children who are never coerced into ‘the hug/kiss’ and who joyfully engage in such things, but other children whose parents insist on it, will scream, run away or just outright refuse — I don’t blame them one bit. Besides, aren’t we simultaneously telling our children to never let anyone touch them or force them to do something physical that they don’t want to do and forcing them to hug grandma?!?! What kind of mixed message is that we are sending?
So, that’s a sampling of some rules and expected behaviors that are common for Mainstreamers, but not myself. I also like to model social niceties (like saying ‘please’ & ‘thank you’) rather than expect and enforce them…especially gratitude, because forced empty ‘thank you’s don’t help a child grown up to be a grateful person. Actually living and acting in ways that reflect how you want to be treated, how you want your children to be treated and how you want them to treat others is the best kind of ‘teaching’ you can do. Actually living in ways that reflect your principles (principles like: Honesty & Safety) show children a style or way of living that is acceptable and that serves you and your interactions well. It is a total parental cop out (and not one that works) to say “do as I say and not as I do”.
So, how does a child who grows up in a house/community with no rules, make it out in the ‘real world’? First, children who are NOT locked away inside a school building 5 to 7 hours a day are living in the Real World and NOT a building with literature books, math word problems and multicultural studies pretending to emulate the Real World. If children are already living in the Real World, then they are learning to navigate that Real World with the help of their family and community. There are already rules and boundaries in the Real World that children have to make decisions about…why would we spend time making up and enforcing arbitrary rules and boundaries to get our children ‘ready for Real Life’, if in fact they are living a Real Life in the Real World? It is very plain and simple that the library closes at 5pm, so if we want to go there, then we have to leave far enough in advance to arrive at the library before it closes and if we decide to stop somewhere on the way, we are also deciding that it is okay to possibly miss out on the library today.
Every person has complete authority over themselves. We choose whether or not to give another person authority over us…be that an employer, teacher, parent, government or spiritual leader/G-d. When we choose to give another person authority over us, we also choose to deal with and often accept the issues that can arise from such a relationship and power dynamic. Unfortunately, most parents don’t even begin to pretend to accept their children’s authority over their own life and that children naturally give up a great deal of authority over to their parents and other people that they form trusting relationships with and with whom they can depend on to help them navigate through unfamiliar situations. Instead, most parents assume that they have complete authority over their children and that they deserve this authority or that it is like a right to have it — I mean after all it is the parents who are feeding, clothing, housing and paying for entertainment…once again though, parents choose to have children and to do these things for them out of love and legalities.
On a parenting Meet Up forum, I’ve been spending a great deal of time defending children and talking about living peacefully with them, as well as learning to accept & work with rather than against many of their behaviors, I was trying to find another article to convey some of these ideas and I ran across one that I had missed from a long while back. It deals with living with rules vs. principles and how there is no need to create arbitrary boundaries now to ‘teach’ our children how to respect or deal with real boundaries later in life.