Anarchic Parenting January 4, 2009Posted by Andreas in anarchism, Life, Parenting.
I know, I know… I’ve been a poor blogger for quite a while now. Just been really busy with other…stuff. I’m hoping to become more active in this department again in the new year – not a resolution, you understand (not very fond of those…) – but I do have a couple ideas that might be fun. For the moment, here’s a story on alternative parenting I wrote for Cape Town’s Child magazine a while ago:
There is a list of house rules stuck to our refrigerator door that includes amongst other points: “We clean up after ourselves” and “We are nice to each other and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’”. What’s unusual about the list is that it wasn’t written by me or my wife, Sam, but by all of us together – which explains why there’s also “Parents help kids when they need help” and “No buying lions”… You see, we think of ourselves as anarchic parents.
For most people the word “anarchy” invokes extremely negative images of chaos, mayhem and violent lawlessness. Whenever I mention it in conjunction with our approach to parenting, even my best friends stare at me in disbelieve. For them, the idea of anarchic parenting conjures up nightmarish visions of out-of-control teenage mobs rampaging through the streets like crazed soccer hooligans.
The reaction is understandable, of course – it reflects the popular meaning of “anarchy”. It has very little to do with the political tradition of “anarchism”, however, which forms the basis of anarchic parenting. Anarchists, also called libertarians, believe that human beings are capable of achieving their fullest potential if they are allowed to have as much personal freedom as is possible without infringing on the personal freedom of others. As an anarchic parent it is perfectly reasonable for me to ask my seven-year-old son Benjamin not to play his recorder right outside my office door while I’m trying to work, but I have to be similarly respectful of his nine-year-old brother Josef’s rights when he stomps into the lounge during a rather rowdy late-night party exclaiming “Excuse me, you are making altogether too much noise and we can’t sleep!”
Anarchists reject a culture built on hierarchical, top-down power relationships, but place as much emphasis on peaceful mutual cooperation between the members of society as they do on maximising individual freedom. Anarchic parenting is founded on the same principles. Clearly this won’t work for everybody, but it does provide an alternative for parents who find many aspects of the mainstream model of child rearing rather stifling and incompatible with their personal and political philosophies.
Original virtue over original sin
Libertarians argue that most conventional approaches to raising children are based on a very negative view of human nature which assumes that kids are naturally born “bad” and that given half a chance they’ll only look after their own interests and will turn out to be lazy, mean, selfish and even violent adults. This is reminiscent of the biblical concept of “original sin” and it’s the parents’ role to “improve” and “civilise” their children. Anarchists, by contrast, have a more positive or at worst a neutral opinion of human nature, claiming that rather than original sin, there is “original virtue”.
American educator and parenting author Alfie Kohn says “kids need to be guided and helped, but they’re not little monsters who must be tamed or brought to heel.” The Austrian-American libertarian psychologist Wilhelm Reich believed that kids have an innate tendency towards self-regulation and that truly internalised positive values such as “goodness” and respect for others and one’s self can’t be imposed from outside, but are the result of an inner conviction that is based on the experience of interacting with other people. In the words of progressive Scottish educator A.S. Neill “self-regulation implies a belief in the goodness of human nature; a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin.”
But does self-regulation work in real life?
“I do crave McDonald’s food sometimes”, Josef admitted the other day, “it just smells so good! But I don’t want to have any.” Having been positively addicted to fast food in the past myself I completely understand his predicament. We’ve talked about it as a family and some time ago we watched the anti-McDonald’s documentary McLibel together. Since then Josef hasn’t touched the stuff. It’s not that we refuse to buy it for him, even though we’d rather not, but having found out the facts, he’s decided that fast food isn’t good for him, for other people or for the planet and that he’s going to try to steer clear of it.
Why should our children have to earn our approval?
Kohn is critical of the fact that too many interactions between children and their parents are akin to economic transactions that leave kids thinking that they need to earn their parents’ approval and love, while parents end up “buying” obedience through threats, punishments, bribes and rewards. He emphasises that above all, children need their parents’ unconditional love and respect. “Kids need us to love them for who they are, not for what they do”, he says. “They shouldn’t have to earn our approval.”
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, the co-founder of Taking Children Seriously (TCS), a libertarian parenting movement and educational philosophy, argues that most traditional interactions between adults and youth are based on coercion and that fixed rules such as “the parent is always right” are simply irrational. TCS postulates that it is both “possible and desirable to raise and educate children without either doing anything to them against their will, or making them do anything against their will.”
“TCS holds that all human beings are fallible and can make mistakes” says Fitz-Claridge – even parents. Since we only really learn from our own experiences – both successful and unsuccessful ones – it is very important for a child to be given the opportunity to make his or her own choices whenever possible. Rather than always providing ready-made answers, parents are encouraged to act as sources of information and options, allowing their children to live in as open and free an environment as possible in which new ideas can be explored and old ones criticised. In conflict situations parents and children should work together, openly and rationally discussing their opinions and feelings in order to find a common preference – a mutually agreeable solution – to the problem at hand.
What about discipline?
But isn’t this way of parenting much too permissive and won’t it simply spoil the kids? Surely children can’t be expected to teach themselves the necessary social skills they will need to become successful adults.
I’ll be honest: I’ve often been surprised that Josef and Benjamin don’t use swear words in public. Sam and I decided that it would be hypocritical to behave differently in front of them than we would naturally. So, on occasion, we do swear front of them. But we also make a point of always talking to them about it once the dust has settled. We’ve explained that many people find swearing very offensive and why, but we’ve never told them not to do it themselves.
Kohn argues that “kids don’t need us to back off and let them do whatever the hell they want, any more than they need us to control them. The real alternative to doing things to kids is to work with them.” He believes that parents should give kids more opportunities to make their own choices from early on in life: “Too much control by us means too little opportunity for them to develop internal regulation. The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”
That doesn’t mean parents should be submissive to every whim of their children or should never say “no”. According to A.S. Neill, “in the disciplined home, the children have no rights. In the spoiled home, they have all the rights. The proper home is one in which children and adults have equal rights.” That is not to say that parents don’t know more about the world than their children – of course not, but they shouldn’t be in a position to make all of the decisions autocratically or solve family conflicts and disagreements by simply “putting their foot down” regardless of the circumstances.
With rights, of course, come responsibilities as well. At the end of last year our whole family sat down together to design a “chore chart” that now adorns the kitchen wall. On it are listed all of the things that need doing around our house on a regular basis. Feeding the cat, washing the dishes, packing away toys and emptying the hamster cage – that sort of stuff. Every time any one of us does one of these chores we give ourselves a tick in the appropriate column. Nobody is forced to do any of the chores, but the chart gives all of us, including the children, a sense of what needs to be done to keep our household going. Everybody has bought into the idea of household tasks as teamwork and none of us wants to be seen as not doing our bit.
There is no such thing as a rule book for anarchistic parenting and, in fact, most practitioners place a high premium on spontaneity, a do-it-yourself spirit and experimenting with whatever options present themselves in any particular situation. If you’ve read this article and are shaking your head at what to you sounds like idealistic and unrealistic claptrap, than this way of raising children is probably not for you. But perhaps you are just intrigued enough to bring up the concept of anarchic parenting with the rest of your clan one night around the dinner table and the next time you feel straight-jacketed by parenting conventions, why not let a little anarchy into your family life?
Democratise Your Family
Participatory democracy at home is an integral part of anarchistic parenting. Here are some simple steps to democratise your family’s interactions:
● Hold regular and spontaneous family meetings in which every member of the clan can voice his or her opinion on the issues of the day. Make sure that everyone, even the littlest family member gets a chance to speak their mind. Try to arrive at mutually agreeable decisions by consensus and if that doesn’t work, have a vote.
● Come up with your own list of family rules, rights and responsibilities with which all of you can agree and post it up on the fridge door. Keep it realistic and do-able and remember to have some fun while you’re at it!
● Rather than having parents dish out punishments based on their own opinion alone, get together and discuss why certain behaviour is not acceptable and try to come up with practical ways to avoid it happening again in the future.
● Play by the rules yourself. A parent who docks half of his pudding because he was three quarters of an hour late for picking the kids up from school, for example, has just made his children realise that he also respects their rights, just as he wants them to respect his.