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Consensual Living

...we can make a choice; a choice to threaten and intimidate to get our way, or a choice to reach out in compassion and connection to find common ground...

I'm reading tonight about a concept that is new to me. It is called Consensual Living. The ideas behind it are not all new, but the articles and resources that I'm discovering are giving me some new ideas to use in my relationship with my children, my husband, and other family members. I first came across the concept when reading a Mothering dot com thread discussing the discipline chapter of Peggy O'Mara's book Natural Family Living (which is on my Christmas wish list!).

The author of an article on what consensual living is describes it this way:
Consensual Living, to me, means living with family members in relationships where each individual is treated equally and has the right to self-determination, living in an environment where each family member’s wants and/or needs are valued and met. When conflicts arise, mutually agreeable solutions are reached.

She goes on to list the following principles:

  • Equality: The thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and/or solutions, of each individual involved, are equally valued, and equally considered. Everyone has thoughts, feelings, opinions, wants, needs, and/or solutions. We all must see those and the individual as equal regardless of our differences. It is more than just treating everyone as equal, each member of the family must be equal. If all family members do not truly feel equal, the process will be less than successful.

  • Trust: We must trust that all members of the family are being truthful, when sharing their wants or needs, sharing information or finding solutions. We must trust that each individual is doing the best that he can at this point in time, with the tools available to him. We must trust that we can move through life and the world peacefully and joyfully. We must trust that, in times of conflict, mutually agreeable solutions can and will be found. By trusting the members of our family they, in turn, come to trust us, trust our honesty, and trust the process.

  • Self-Determination: With accurate information, only the individual is capable of making decisions regarding what is right for him. No one is better at making those decisions than the individual. We are masters of our own fate. If we take the right to self-determination away from any individual, we are changing the course of their life, and may never come to know the person they were meant to become.

Her article also contains other information on communication, conflict resolution,  and other topics.

I'm intrigued by the concept. It is essentially about mutual problem solving when two peoples needs and wants are not aligned. I do have to admit that while it sounds interesting, when I think of the areas where I do face some conflict with my four year old are the areas where he truly does not understand the consequences of the choices he wants to make or isn't able to appreciate, despite an explanation, the negative impact of his wishes on other people and eventually on himself.

Let me give two different examples:

  • What to eat and when to eat: My son often doesn't want to eat at mealtimes. He doesn't want to eat what is offered either. He wants to eat chocolate instead. He isn't old enough yet to prepare his own meals and while I often give him choice about what is for dinner (should I make white sauce or red sauce for the pasta tonight, do you want macaroni or spaghetti), I don't think it is fair to me to expect me to drop everything and feed him when he wants to be fed, I don't think it is good for his health for him to eat primarily junk food, and I think it is important for family harmony and communication for us to eat together as a family. I can explain the importance all of these things to him over and over and try to make him understand the consequences of his wishes on other people and on his own health, but it falls on deaf ears or just doesn't sink in. So ultimately, I make the decisions on these issues while considering his needs and giving him choices where I can.

  • Time, time, time: For a four year old, there are no time constraints. You can take as long as you want to play, to eat, to get ready for bed. Unfortunately, the real world imposes some schedules and limits on us. We do have to get up at a certain time each day (even if we would rather stay in bed), we do have to eat our breakfast within a 30 minute timeframe (even if a leisurely 2 hour brunch would be preferable), we do need to get dressed and get out the door by a certain time (or else mommy will lose her ability to make a living which would have dire consequences for the family that a 4 year old cannot or does not want to fully comprehend despite explanations).

I guess my biggest challenge, and I raised this in the Mothering thread, is that I don't know how to get my four year old to understand the consequences of his wishes and actions on other people. I think about and consider his needs when I make choices but it isn't reciprocated. I hope that with more discussion and work on emotional intelligence that it will come with time and then we will be able to be more consensual in our decision making, but until then I feel like I still need to have the final say a lot of the time.

In any case, I just came across this concept tonight and I will read more of the articles and other resources on the Consensual Living web site and see what I can learn elsewhere, but my first goal is to find a way to help my four year old understand how his actions impact other people and also how they may impact him in the long term. Until then, I don't know that I can give him full equality in the decision making process.

Please tell me! How do you make life more consensual in your family? How do you deal with the emotional immaturity of young children when doing so?

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Reader Comments (6)

It was very interesting to read your thoughts on this subject.

I have heard of consentual living (I believe it's basically the same idea as the "taking children seriously" philosophy?) and while I appreciate the theory behind it, I have the same concerns as you regarding the practicality of it. I have even bigger concerns about it when it comes to larger families - maybe it works well for those with one or two children, but when you have many children and take a "no coercion" approach, it just can't work. Someone will have to do something they don't want to do.

I also do question the very root of the idea behind it. Mutually agreeable solutions are nice - they're something to aim for. Less coercion is nice - it's something to aim for. But ultimately children are not able to make the best decisions in all cases. If they were, they wouldn't need parents to guide them through childhood and into maturity.

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

@Cynthia - from what I have understood so far, consensual living doesn't mean that noone every has to do something that they don't want to do, but it does mean that everyone's needs are considered and everyone has a say in the decision making process. Ultimately, while not everyone will necessarily be happy with every decision, they should be able to agree on a compromise that is best for everyone.

As you said, it may not always be practical. But I think it is worth aiming to do more of it.

Already this morning I tried it out a bit with good results. When we were in the car, my son wanted his window open. I said, no we can't open the window. It is too cold outside. And he wasn't happy. Normally I would have just explained again why we can't open the window and expected him to understand. This time I asked him why he wanted to open it. He said because he wanted to look out at the snow and the cars. That is when I noticed his window was fogged up. So I suggested he use his scarf to clean the window. He did that and then was happy. He didn't really need the window open, he just wanted to be able to see and for him the best solution to make that happen was opening the window. So by trying to understand the reasons behind his request instead of just denying it, we came up with a solution that worked for both of us.

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Interesting. I do completely agree that it is something worth aiming towards - your example was a perfect one.

Maybe I'm wrong, then, in thinking that consensual living and the "taking children seriously" philosophy are the same thing? Your description of consensual living sounds more along the lines of Kohn's "Unconditional Parenting" (which, to be fair, I haven't finished yet, so maybe I should reserve judgement on it, but so far I more or less agree with him). The TCS philosophy is, from what I've read, a literal no-coercion approach - your child does nothing unless they want to do it.

Then again, many TCS-ers cite Kohn's book as backup for their approach, so I guess it's all a bit muddled as far as what you call it and what the specifics of it are and how far the individual parent goes in carrying it out.

November 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

This is probably answered in the MDC thread, but even if you could let your four year old dictate what or when he eats, what about things he simply does not want to do? For example, every night is a challenge for me to brush my son's teeth. Should I let his teeth rot? Or let him watch as much tv as he wants? I think the idea is wonderful...but in the real world, it just cannot work.

November 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHey You

I've never been around here before but stumbled across your website from at google search.

We try to live consensually in my house - and while my husband and I strougle to let go of our constant control, our son shows us the way by living up to our trust more or less every single time we do let go.

WRT the eating situation - I think you need to get into a totally different mindframe to really understand what CL is all about. My son (3 yo) has - and always will - been able to eat whenever he wants to. I don't prepare meals for him, but he can eat leftovers (heated in the microwave if he wants), he can have some fruit or some bread. He still sits down to eat breakfast and dinner with the rest of the family - not always hungry, as he usually wants to taste everything while I cook dinner - but because he likes the company and likes to talk to the rest of us. I like the fact that he actually likes to spend time with us, instead of being forced to participate because otherwise he won't get anything to eat. Sometimes he gets up before the rest of us does to go watch at cartoon - and I help him find it on the server - but my husband and I don't get up to watch it with him, because we want to eat our dinner.

Does he choose whatever he wants for dinnner? No, because usually he doesn't have an opinion... he pretty much eats what is served. This is from at child who has never ever been told to eat his veggies - or anything else for that matter - sometimes he eats only meat, sometimes only veggies, sometimes only bread. His meals are rarely balanced if you look on only one meal. But often he eats a whole cantaloupe for afternoon snack, or 3-4 carrots - and the other day we had vegan lasagna and he kept asking for more...

How about candy youd say - if he had the choice would he not eat it all the time? No he wouldn't. He often has the choice... when we meet up at LLL meetings or our local babywearning groups there are TONS of cake and candy and he eats just as much fruits and veggies as he eats cake - or actually he is prone to ask for a piece of cake and leave it while grapes are eaten till the plate is empty. We don't have much candy around the house because I am quite overweight (and raised by a controlfreak mom) and I cannot control it if we do. But often - when he asks, he gets it. Often when we go shopping he asks for winegum - but just as often he asks for strawberries - they are just as much a treat for him.

As for getting out of the door - I haven't figured that one out yet... I'm a SAHM and have more time - it does make it so much easier. Alot of CL parents have one or the other at home. Not everyone can do that - and not everybody wants to do that, and maybe that is just where one has to compromise consentuality - if he had his way he probably didn't have to get out of the door every day... Like I said not everyone has that choice.

As for behaving in traffic - I have explained it to him, and I explain it to him every time we are out (I live in the city, so it is really really important). Most of the time he stays at my side and the is exemplary - once or twice (maybe three times) ind his life he has forgotten and it has been dealt with very very swiftly by dropping my bags and running after him and stopping him physically. Lifesaving is not forbidden in CL :o)

July 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

[...] that their thoughts are just as important as all of the other members of the family. Annie, from PhD in Parenting, writes about the challenges faced by parents of young children when trying to incorporate what [...]

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