My friend Rowan linked to a Globe and Mail article about something called “consensual parenting”. The basic premise of the article seems to be that parents and children can live together in an entirely consensus based power structure, as peers.

I know there are schools that function this way, like Sudbury Valley. But it’s clear to me that I could never function like that as a parent. This is one of those things that is *so close* to my parenting approach and yet…not.

I love consensus process as much as the next crunchy leftist activist. But at the end of the day, between me and Rio, I am the boss of her. Double for her baby sister.

Take the example the article uses, of clothing. Rio is allowed to choose her own outfits, but I insist that everything she wears be 1. clean, 2. generally free of tears and stains, 3. appropriate for the weather, and 4. approximately her size.

I do this to protect her from freezing her butt off and to protect our family from social censure, both of which I’d risk if I let her wear polka dot shorts to the playground when it is 43 degrees out (her outfit of choice this morning). My job is to care for her, and to let her know that she is cared for by me. I am her safety net, and knowing I’ll catch her allows her to take risks and sometimes fall. That’s how she grows.

Another, and to me more important, point, is that I want Rio to grow up to be a competent person with the power to change the world. To do that she needs to understand power.

I have power over her, whether we like it or not. I want that power to be as transparent as possible so that through seeing me use it, she can learn how power works. I hope she’ll learn that freedom and responsibility are a package deal.

When she was curious about school a few months ago, someone asked me why I didn’t leave the decision about whether or not to attend kindergarten up to her. The simple answer is: I can’t. Rio cannot read a clock, a calendar, or a map. She cannot read or write well enough to fill out kindergarten registration forms. She is not capable of choosing to go to kindergarten. She can wish to attend school, but its not possible for her to do it without my participation and support.

So I must choose for her, and to pretend otherwise does her a disservice. If I abdicate my power as an adult with a full set of adult skills, and pretend she and I are equals, I make the world a scary scary place. A place where she can’t count on me to know better than her, or to have a solution when things go wrong. One day the world will be that scary, but it doesn’t have to be when she’s four-years-old. I really can fix most of her problems these days.

When I have to make choices for her, I try to let her see that I’m doing so and help her understand why. (In the case of kindergarten, for those just tuning, we wound up with consensus that homeschooling would be a better choice).

I also sometimes make choices for myself that affect her, like, “I don’t want to be in the same room with you if you don’t stop screaming and throwing crayons,” or “I don’t want to read you a story if you ask in a demanding voice.” I feel fine about having these boundaries. They’re clear, honest and critical to my sanity as a person who spends almost all my waking hours in the company of at least two preschoolers.

As a new mom, I used to feel pretty freaked out about enforcing rules on the kids when they were being annoying but not dangerous. Now I feel like, hey, they want to live with me, they have to play by my rules. I wouldn’t let an adult throw crayons at me; I’m not going to tolerate it in my kids either.

I think this approach, while it’s more authoritarian than I’d imagined myself being as a mom back when I was pregnant with Rio, must be working. I think this because the other night at dinner Rio complained loudly that she did not want to eat the food her dad had cooked.

I said, “If you don’t like it, you can make your own dinner.”

Usually this logic persuades her to eat what she’s offered. But this time she quietly got up from the table, went to the fridge, took out a box of leftover pasta, pushed a chair up to the counter, and put her pasta in the microwave. She heated it up for a minute, put it on her plate, and ate it.

Responsibility=freedom=power. I think she’s starting to get it.

Also recently, when we were fighting about something, Rio angrily shouted that when she is an adult she is going to live in her own house with her own husband and have her own babies and her own job and she won’t have to listen to me anymore. It was her supreme threat, her nuclear option. It’s also my goal in life. You do that, kid.

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