Consensual Living — and the Life Changing Effect of Parenthood

Consensual Living is a philosophy, or collection of principles, by which families get along together without coercion, addressing everybody’s needs on an equal basis. The basic principles as I understand them are equality, trust and self determination.

A comment on one of my recent posts about grieving stuck in my mind. Evan wrote that an experience like losing a parent changes the person you are. I started to wonder about the various changes that have happened in my life that were not only life changing but really changed in a substantial way the person I am.

Although my initial family situation provided some stiff competition, becoming a parent nonetheless came top of the list. This was a real case of being able to take a before and after photo, on mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Becoming a parent was very much like starting all over again myself and working out in various ways, some intuitive, some involving research and new relationships, what the important things in life are and how to cultivate them, nurture them, and just not squash them!

I have only recently, over a decade into the journey, discovered something called Consensual Living, a philosophy, or collection of principles, by which families get along together without coercion, addressing everybody’s needs on an equal basis. The basic principles as I understand them are equality, trust and self-determination. Regardless of age.

A scary thought conjuring up nightmares of kids who eat nothing but ice cream all day, never wash, run out in traffic just because they feel like it and spend the day beating each other up as their own personal problem solving measure? A middle class hippie utopia producing as an end product an adult who is totally unsuited to living in the “real world”?

Or a truly refreshing alternative to a world in which parents pile heaps of stress upon themselves in an attempt to take total responsibility for the lives of several completely different people, to work out what is best for them, often based on what “result” we wish to achieve in the future, and make sure that this ideal of ours is implemented through manipulation (praise and punishments, carrot and stick) or out and out dictatorial control (not a model we tend to wish for in the “real world”!).

The ideal may be more or less dependent on our dominant culture — the final product may for example be someone who is rich and famous, or who has a great career, or it may be more carefully thought out and original, but the methods are the same. And whatever else they create, they certainly create resistance, conflict and pressure — mostly inside the parent who takes on the role of God.

My own superficial understanding of consensual living with its emphasis on finding a mutually agreeable solution to all conflicts, based on individuals being aware of and expressing their needs (i.e., being enabled to do so and not terrified) within the home, is that this is likely to “produce” adults who are superbly equipped for life in the “real world” just as long as they don’t live in a dictatorship — although they will have difficulties getting along with people who are not open to flexible approaches. But should we really adjust ourselves to be able to survive the worst rather than to create the best?

It is a big leap of faith, or rather trust, that a mutually agreeable solution is always possible. In theory we might even agree, but when developmental stages come into play and we have a toddler being extremely forthright about their needs at the expense of everyone else’s, it is a lot harder. We need to take a deep breath, jump, and be creative. Trust that other people have input which is just as useful as yours, experience that is just as relevant to the situation, which is after all being created by everyone together. Letting go of the attitude of having to be in control, and of having to be right (while not losing the responsibility for the physical safety of the younger ones) frees a tremendous amount of energy for joy, connection and finding solutions.

Am I ultimately concerned with finding real solutions, connections and joy, or am I concerned with being right and what other people think of me? Am I looking for the praise and avoiding the punishments myself?

I found these questions, and this most practical of philosophies for life, really inspiring. I realised that I was intuitively using it in many ways myself. I do find that I am quite capable of using any conceptualised set of rules, once given a name, as another external authority which can bash me over the head if I put a foot wrong, so I am certainly not going to try and be a real adherent — I am often too tired, overloaded, impatient and selfish to be open to the approach, and our family throws up a mix of different styles anyway, which is just fine by me.

But I love the emphasis on finding what works for all of us, right now, trusting that we will always be able to find solutions in the future too, and the insistence on fundamental equality and self-determination for everybody, which can only be worked out in conditions of freedom from fear.

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