By Anna M. Brown
Our society speaks often of how “challenging” teenagers can be or how “morose” and “distant”. These comments always intrigue me because they seem to overlook the seemingly obvious role that we, as adults, play in leading teens to this place of distance.
As soon as our children are born, the cultural agenda for independence begins: “they need to be independent”, “let them cry it out”, “they need to buck up, you don’t want them leaning on you forever”, “they need to learn the hard way”, etc. The list goes on and on. All of this advice ends up being a myriad of ways to distance and disconnect ourselves from our children, and our children from us.
I found something today when I was pet sitting for a neighbor. I noticed that on the refrigerator there was a posted, multi-page document. It looked like a Power Point presentation and the title was “House Rules”. Of course I was curious and so I took a closer look. It was five pages long! It began with “Grades will be top priority”. Under that were sub bullets that detailed the restriction of privileges if grades were not maintained. Multiple iterations and “if/then” statements were used. If all was going well at school you were able to have ONE activity per week and that included outside classes.
School is, thankfully, not a part of our life. We live and learn each day as we share our passions and explore our world. It is hard to imagine the type of relationship to grades and performance described on this list, this type of external control of the internal process of learning. While my children will most likely never see the inside of a school, I did attend school. My parents never rewarded or punished for grades. They believed that it was *my* education, and that I must find it in myself to make it a priority or there wasn’t much point to it. There were times when my friends were getting paid for grades that I questioned their philosophy but I have to say it served me well. I did take school seriously because I wanted to, not because I was being coerced or threatened to do so. I saw with my friends, that their parents’ attempts at control only took the focus off of what school could be to them and turned their energy to battling their parents. Now I believe that school is not an ideal environment for learning, that living in the real world and experiencing life allows learning to flourish. It is in experiencing life that we find out who we are and where our strengths lie and what are passions are. It’s harder to find our passions and our *self* when we are being told what to think, what to learn and how to learn it. I believe that we cannot learn in an environment of threats and coercion. So with these thoughts, I turned to the next page.
The first bullet was: “No bare feet outside”. WHAT?!?!? I was dumb struck. It’s hard to think of a time when my children have shoes on outside, except perhaps in our once every 2 years snow. I couldn’t imagine why this would be a rule. Then it proceeded to list, “no open windows in summer”, “no laundry lying around”, etc.
On to page three, “Religious Education will be maintained”. So your learning is externally managed, your foot wear dictated, and further more your spiritual life is determined for you, under threat of punishment as well. Just for information sake, these rules are for teenagers.
Page four: “Computer time, for non-homework, limited to 1 hour per day”, “Telephone time and TV time will be limited by adults”, “Cell phone minutes limited to X minutes/month, if violated then cell phone will be forfeited”.
“Limited by adults”, that phrase is really challenging for me. It’s hard to imagine not being able to decide how to spend my own personal time. How can you find *who you are*, in that type of environment? That type of systematic disempowerment chips away at you. Different personalities will handle it in different ways. Some will rebel; some will acquiesce, and in that loose a piece of themselves; and some will bide their time looking for escape. None of those scenarios seem particularly conducive to growth and development, something that is so important during our teenage years.
Page five is too long to re-type but here are some highlights: “animals will be fed and kennel cleaned daily”, “dogs will be watched entire time indoors (no mistakes or tearing of insulation will be allowed or privileges will be taken away)”. So yes, it appears you are even punished if the dog makes a mistake! Page five goes on to talk about closing cabinets, getting the mail, turning off lights, cleaning and laundry. I imagined how I would feel if my husband left me a list like this, I don’t think that it would go over very well. Yet, somehow, it must seem perfectly reasonable to leave this list for children.
I wanted to scream, I wanted to help, I wanted to rescue. For now, I decided to take a deep breath, and write it down in hopes of documenting and examining a few things. I can understand why teenagers are “distant”, “morose” and “challenging”. If I were being treated like this, you’d probably need to add “angry” and “volatile” to the list. Really, it’s hard to even imagine how I might feel with every step dictated and threats and punishment hanging over me at every turn.
I’ve found it DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS! Children are amazing human beings; they are capable of great thought and insight. They can be connected with their body and with those around them – I think that ability can be compromised if every step they make is dictated under the weight of threats and intimidation. That connection to our body, heart and mind is critical for free thinking, but also for connection.
When parents put themselves in the role as authorities they may believe they are doing it “for the child’s good” but they could be missing an opportunity to have more connected relationships with their children, and the opportunity to learn, grow and solve problems together. Critical thinking and problem solving seem to be removed and replaced with rigid, arbitrary *rules*.
When I look at this situation through the lens of Consensual Living, I can set aside my judgments and reactions and see a few things going on. I know that the mother in this home, most likely the drafter of the “House Rules”, works very long days. I’m sure she is exhausted when she gets home and that she has a need for efficiency. I can see that, I can even understand it. I firmly believe, though, that her needs can be met without coercion, threats or intimidation. I’ve found the choice for nurturing partnership and connection is always available.
When we relate in a way that honors the individual, the struggles can fall away. The process is simple in its design. It’s about stating our needs, hearing the other person and strategizing together to find solutions that meet both party’s needs.
I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the “House Rules” and figure out what might be going on there.
- No bare feet outside:
At first I wasn’t sure where to go with this one. Perhaps the parents feel that bare feet are dirty feet and don’t want the dirt tracked into the home. If that’s the case then talking about the concerns of dirty feet and finding other ways to meet the parent’s need (assuming someone wants to be outside with bare feet). A few options come to mind: washing your feet upon entering the home or with a towel, putting on socks as soon as you walk in, wearing slippers in the home, etc. There are many options. Perhaps it’s a “safety” issue. I know that when we replaced our roof, not too long ago, there was a concern about nails in the yard. Instead of imposing on my children, I took steps to address my concern by carefully combing the area with a large magnet, periodically checking again after storms, in case nails were washed out into the yard. I also spoke about the issue specifically with the roofers and gained their cooperation in doing their best to contain the nails. It’s been almost 2 years with no incidents.
- No windows open in the summer.
We live in the south and it’s HOT and HUMID here. So my guess is that they don’t want to “waste” the air conditioning. If someone would like to have a window open then the vents could be closed to that room and the door closed. Also, it would be helpful to find out why they would like the window open. Are they feeling too cold with the air conditioning, want some fresh air, etc. Understanding the need on both ends gives us somewhere to start when searching for solutions. Edicts aren’t necessary; we can communicate with each other and find solutions.
- No laundry, backpacks, other stuff lying around
This concern is another great opportunity for communication. What is the issue? Are people tripping over things, is it hard to find things you need, etc.? Figuring out the need leads us to the solutions. For laundry, convenient hampers in the places where clothes are being left. Working out a spot where back packs can go that’s convenient when kids come home. Talk. Kids are reasonable and they are often amazing at finding solutions that work, even when we are feeling stuck.
- All of the limits: TV, telephone, computer
This is a question that comes up a lot. Someone parents feel comforted when they can control how their child spends their time. If I were to start feeling that urge, I would try to put myself in the child’s shoes. I know that I would not enjoy someone telling me when I could use the computer and for how long. So I would try to figure out why I wanted to control what they are doing. Perhaps I was feeling disconnected or that they weren’t engaging with the world around them. For those things, I would just choose to connect, to find things we enjoyed doing together, or I would take an interest in what they are doing and learn more about it. As it is, I love playing video games with them, watching their shows, helping them on the computer etc. Fostering that connection helps us avoid conflicts and struggles that might result from not being involved.
In this family, it may be related to school work. I still think there is value in the child deciding for themselves. They are well aware of the things on their plate. How they spend their time is something that they are in the best position to decide. Learning to work through that and still meet their commitments is part of learning and growing. Being controlled by others doesn’t help us develop our internal guide.
- Religious Education will be maintained
I guess I struggle with this one the most because I believe that a person’s religious beliefs are extremely personal. I’d want to understand the concern of the parent. Is there something special that they want to be shared with the child? Do they have concerns about morality, knowledge, etc? I believe that those concerns can be addressed through conversation, connection and modeling. I trust that each person can find their own moral compass. I don’t believe morals can be forced or coerced, that seems counterintuitive to me. If we do not trust that our religious beliefs are inherently attractive and helpful, how do we expect others to find connection to them?
One whole page of these “House Rules” was devoted to chores. This is also a “hot” issue when parents are thinking about living consensually. I don’t believe in “chores”. We live together, as a family and we respect each other’s needs and space. Whenever I’m faced with messes or feeling overwhelmed with work around the house, I take a step back and evaluate a few things. I look at how *I* am doing: Am I getting the space and time I need to be my best? This is usually at the root of many house related meltdowns. When I recharge I am usually able to have a more realistic view of my surroundings.
With this family, things are complicated by long work days and school. I can imagine that the mother feels really tired and sometimes stressed after working 10-12 hours away from home. I feel like the long, incredibly detailed list of chores is related to not having the energy to clean up after people and just wanting it done. I think that’s a slippery slope though. When we take short cuts and use our authority over another we can experience some unintended consequences. I think there is the potential for several in this scenario. First of all, we are taking away the opportunity for individuals to think for themselves and to engage in dialog with those with whom they are living. I can imagine that no one feels heard and that there is quite a bit of resentment. Taking the time to model, offers those around us a template. They can see what’s important to us and evaluate it for themselves. Taking the time to engage in the discussions around these issues gives us a stage on which to develop the skills of conflict resolution, compassion and problem solving.
In the chore scenario, both parents and children can talk about their needs and their limitations or constraints. Together they can figure out ways to meet the needs of those in the house in a way that works for them all. When that happens, rather than having resentment and irritation you can have “buy in” and understanding. Working together is a completely different paradigm that leaves the power struggles at the door. They aren’t necessary.
What speaks loudest to me from this situation is a belief that children/teenagers aren’t reasonable; that we somehow have to use our power over them to control them. I’m not really comfortable sending that message to my children. It seems to equate to “might makes right”. I prefer to model compassion, respect and conflict resolution. I believe it serves all of us to treat each member of our society with respect and the assumption of positive intent. When we get ourselves in situations where we are lashing out or clinging to a power matrix, I think we owe it to ourselves to step back and examine where we are and how we got there. At that point, 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’ve found there is always common ground. I truly believe there are always solutions. At that point we can let go of fear; fear of the unknown future, fear of not being heard ourselves, fear of all the possible things that could happen or could “go wrong”. We can replace that fear with trust; trust in ourselves, in our children and in the process. Because in the end, I have *today*, right *now*. How do I want to spend it? How do I want to feel? I’ve found that choosing joy and connection has served me. I am filled with gratitude for every moment, enjoy my time and relationships with my children and others in my life, and live with no regrets. I’ve found my children are doing the same.
In closing, just for fun, I want to propose an alternate set of “House Rules”:
- Trust yourself and your intuition.
- Pursue your passions with abandon with the knowledge that you are supported and loved.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Express your needs and trust that they will be met.
- Live, Love, Learn