More Confessions of a Concerned Anarchist Parent

Sunni's picture

Some musings occasioned by the imminent departure of Lobo’s first brood from our home and my concerns for their successful fledging ... Even so, I will try not to make this overly personal, not just for privacy of the individuals involved but also because I’m interested in exploring the broader ideas and issues, not just our family situation.

I think it is just as clear in parenting as it was in old-fashioned agriculture: one reaps what one sows. If one doesn’t provide a context wherein important social and living skills are valued (viz., displayed and expected to develop as a child is capable), it shouldn’t be too surprising that they don’t appear in a young person. Yet many parents seem willing to let their kids get “educated” at school and leave it at that, never broaching the deeper issues of forming and upholding values, of personal integrity and self-responsibility, or helping children learn non-coercive ways of interacting with others. [On the flip side, I’ve seen plenty of parents—even pro-freedom ones—who do things I consider coercive to their children; and I know my approach comes under others’ criticism as well. There’s truly no such thing as an infallible parent.]

That is roughly the position I see Lobo’s first brood as occupying: never having been encouraged to develop initiative, they are mostly content to let others provide for them. [Hardass that I am, I once announced my intention to share produce from a garden only with those who helped me with it. Likely recalling that declaration, last year when I started working on what became the discordian garden from hell, one of them actually asked me if he could eat things from it but not work in it. I was so shocked I don’t recall my reply.] Indeed, the interest in their moving out is primarily driven by Lobo; they are outwardly going along but have not altered their behavior one bit in preparation for the transformation.

I’m very concerned about their abilities to adjust, of course; but my deeper concern is avoiding a similar situation with the snolfs. The snolfs are very interested in the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder; and I have pointed out to them that they could learn many of the tasks that she and her sisters were responsible for at a much younger age than the snolfs are. Sometimes they try certain things, but even when they do it isn’t typically long-lived, desite my efforts to be supportive (which are sometimes not as strong as they could be, I know).

Lobo and I have discussed these issues a fair bit, and he seems to think that the only way to get mature, responsible young people as depicted in the stories is to maintain the high level of control that was the rule back in those days. I think he’s wrong about that; and moreover, I think that the best way to encourage that kind of development in a child is to enable their freedom as much as possible, while also not shielding them fully from the consequences of their ill-advised choices, and not running roughshod over others’ property rights also.

I think it goes without saying that our family is currently not structured to allow me a test of my hypothesis. Moreover, my being the hardass and the wet blanket (because I don’t uncritically cheerlead upon hearing every “great” idea one of the five kids shares) has probably marked me as the “less fun” parent in their minds. I honestly don’t mind it much, because filling my responsibilities to the best of my ability far outweighs them liking me, but it could have longer-term costs.

Is it inherently coercive to have minimal expectations of a child, and/or to increase them as the child’s mastery expands? To my mind, that’s what my perspective comes down to: I am not expecting nor demanding that my children be any certain thing; but I do firmly think that they can and should strive to be competent, honorable individuals. Where has my thinking gone awry?


Where has my thinking gone awry?

It has not, far as I can see. You are exactly right that nobody can learn integrity or responsibility if they do not face the consequences of their actions and choices.

And the younger the better!

If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day....

You teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

How can children grow up to be self-sufficient, respectful of other people's person and property and how to honor their ideals if they don't learn by doing? Yes, it needs to be age appropriate, but inherently people learn by doing.

What other qualities does the Ingalls household possess? It's been a long time since I've read the Little House books, but I do not remember a high level of parental control, per say. I know the children were taught to respect their folks, other people and themselves. They did have chores and duties to their family to help contribute to the survival of their household. Many of these chores did contribute to the real-time survival of the Ingalls family, and there were consequences if the chores were not completed. I think the consequences were for two reasons, 1) to show how important their duties were to the family's continued survival. 2) to demonstrate, through less hurtful consequences, that there were real-time, very harmful consequences for not doing what you needed to do; because in this case the potential for harm to everyone involved was much higher.

Today, life is different. If you forget and leave a light turned off, the consequences are small in comparison to leaving an unattended candle burning. Many of us do not have animals to milk; back then, the family's food supply may lean heavily on such an animal and if the milking schedule was neglected, the animal could die.

There are activities, even today, that children need to be taught are wrong ie. it's still potentially harmful to play with matches or leave a candle unattended. If you leave the side gate open and your pet wanders out, it may be hit by a car and injured. If you forget to feed a pet, it feels hunger; do it enough times and it could starve. People learn from doing, but the learning must with tempered with guidance, depending on the potential consequences. In my opinion, raising a child to be a self-sufficient, good person is quite similar.

We wouldn't expect a pilot to know how to fly a plane the first time she stepped into a cockpit, would we? Would we expect a carpenter to automatically know how to use a band saw safely, if he hadn't received any training on workshop safety? The list could go on for days. The thing about raising a child is that we can teach, we can guide, but we cannot banish free will. In our yearning for order or control, we should not give in to the temptation to break a child's spirit. Bottom line, we need to work toward doing our best in raising our kids, know not all agree what the term best should look like and know that kids are resilient. They have to be because none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes at some time or another.

So, to answer your question, no I do not think your thinking has gone awry. It is not inherently coercive to have minimal expectations of a child, dependent on her age. What does that look like? It depends. I do not think there's one pat answer for that particular question. I must point out, however that there's a big difference in not expecting nor demanding that a child *be* any certain thing versus expecting or demanding a child *do* a certain thing. Could it be those pesky little words that could be the root of your quandry?

“Be” versus “Do”. Hmmm.

First, thanks to everyone who’s responded so far. I do know that part of my concern is unwarranted, and is just natural parental concern; and also that they will adjust quickly and mostly well.

I must point out, however that there's a big difference in not expecting nor demanding that a child *be* any certain thing versus expecting or demanding a child *do* a certain thing. Could it be those pesky little words that could be the root of your quandry?

Well, that raises a host of interesting questions. Does the “be-ing” come first, or is it through doing certain things that a person comes to be a certain way? I know of few children who are predisposed to neatness, for example (setting aside the entire Asperger’s/obsessive/“normal” discussion for now); but being expected to clean up messes typically results in a person who comes to find value in tidiness. I think if we were to allow our children to set their own schedules and standards for cleaning their rooms when they became old enough to start helping with that task, the house would be so mold– and dust–filled I wouldn’t be able to breathe in it. It seems to me that your earliest comments, focusing on learning by doing, touch on this issue some.

It also occurs to me that I am not a passive parent in many respects. While I love my kids enormously, I don’t feel comfortable trusting that that’s enough to raise them to be self-reliant. Also, no one starts life that way, obviously; but to be truly mature means attaining some minimal level of self-reliance (and self-control). It’s impossible to be inherently self-reliant; and in this case, then, I think it’s clear a child needs to be encouraged to do things that will foster that nascent way of being.

And before anyone attacks those words as being necessarily controlling, coercive, and/or hierarchical, I hasten to point out that typical childhood development shows this pattern to be sort of hardwired. Even infants clearly learn fairly quickly that they can control some elements of their environment; they enjoy doing so and as they grow and mature, they enjoy expanding that sphere of control. Learning to feed oneself, to walk, and to talk are examples. In toddlerhood, learning to dress oneself and beome toilet trained are others. In these examples, the child should lead the way, signalling readiness, and the parents provide needed guidance, information, and feedback. Does it work the same with things that we consider more a function of personality? I need to ponder that some.

I hope nobody here would attack you as being too controlling!

When people are living in a household together, they have to work out how they'll function together in a way that works for everyone. It's going to look different in different households. Some people can't function well in a household that's not physically orderly, and it seems to me that it's not unfair for that person to say "this is a real need for me."

When I think of what I learned about those things ... well, my Dad used to threaten to take a bulldozer to my room. I have a need for order now, but I'm not good at it. My model when I was a child was my Mom who's also not good at it. She makes piles of things and "tucks" things and can never find anything! And as I get older, I find I'm getting more and more like her!

I think I'd like to be a good model for my own daughter ... she just read this and thought it was pretty funny, since she knows us well ... but I guess what I'm modeling is that I have a desire for order but am not too perfect about achieving it and I'm still striving to get better. I definitely would feel like a hypocrite expecting her room to be really neat when my desk is surrounded by mounds of papers threatening to fall over!

Which may be a long way of coming around to agreeing that yes, you're right, kids could use teaching in this area, since we aren't necessarily born knowing how to create order.

Perhaps the most important thing ...

I’m trying to get the snolfs to understand is that, rightly or wrongly at times, if one doesn’t control oneself, someone else will try to control him. It seems a simple idea, but many complexities lie within it, as they are discovering. And although we try hard not to be overly controlling, both Lobo and I have physically restrained a child (to keep him or her from initiating force against someone), or stopped them from playing (loudly) when everyone else in the house is trying to sleep. And I try to consistently point out that their lack of control is what led me to exert control over them.

I have a need for order now, but I'm not good at it.

More and more I suspect we are soul sisters born to different parents. Have you perchance noticed my fairly recently added link to Unclutterer? I haven’t entirely reformed my ways, but I’m slowly improving.


Anyone who's ever been to my house knows that I am well organized in some things, indifferent in some things, and hopelessly cluttered in others.

I think this is because I try hard to keep focused on my priorities, and I don't allow myself to get sidetracked by things that don't matter as much to me.

I keep my kitchen VERY clean, for the most part, even though I don't really like to wash dishes - if that makes any sense. The focus is producing good, safe food there. Certain actions are required to achieve that priority. I'm willing to do those things consistently and well.

My storage room is a disaster, as far as organization goes. Things are stored safely and in a proper environment, but I make little effort to keep it all neat. Yes, I could find things more easily if I took the time to pull everything out and organize it, but so far other things have always been more important to me. Nothing really bad will happen if I leave it as it is.

Guess what I'm trying to say is that it seems the purpose and priority of the action is the key, rather than some overall drive for a specific state of affairs, such as neatness.

Maybe that's the key to teaching children.

Taught one way, they probably develop obsessions over the form and performance of a particular act = neatness for its own sake so that many other things are neglected because so much time is spent organizing and cleaning.

Taught another way, organization and neatness become tools to achieve a specific purpose in the hierarchy of priorities we set for our lives.

And, I suspect, that most of us have some combination of both. So, being "good" at it is relative only to our own expectations and needs.

My Aunt Kay starched and ironed everything, including socks and dust rags... You could eat off her floors. She was SOOOO neat, but she simply had NO other life than keeping that house. She seemed happy, but I would never want to live that way. :)

... but I'm still using that!

I just checked out that uncluttered link ... at first I was totally intimidated by a photo of a pristine office ... but further down I noticed a real sense of humor.

I think I hate to put certain things away because I think I might imminently use them ... or I don't want to forget that I wanted to use them.

I have the same deal with the kitchen as Mama ... very clean ... I don't want to poison anyone! The rest of the house is a little more relaxed. I'm glad Mama pointed out that we don't necessarily have to beat ourselves up for having priorities other than the perfectly neat house.

Optimistic pessimism

It is my pessimistic opinion that we all screw up our kids to some extent. The trick is to minimize that and give them the tools to overcome it.

I see the bad parts of my own personality in my grown kids. I want to avoid that mistake in my toddler. In trying to do that I will undoubtedly make new mistakes. I love all my kids, and like them as people, too. I'll be glad to see them overcome my screw-ups. I hope they do.

I wouldn't call it failure yet

Although it was SO long ago, I still remember how aimless I was as a teenager, and how I feared and was really depressed about crossing over into adulthood. The way it looked to me then was that I was about to end the best part of life, being a kid, and enter the period when you spent decades of drudgery, never having any fun, until you died. I couldn't even imagine how I was going to do that. It wasn't until after I got a real job (as opposed to being a waitress or a cashier) that I got that working wouldn't be a lifetime of hell. I know a few other people who went through the same thing, who appeared to be on a losing path from an adult point of view when they were teens, but they all worked it out and are fine.

Have you ever read The Case Against Adolescence? I didn't actually finish it, but I was very intrigued by the premise, which is that teens in our culture are really crippled by the way babyhood has been extended, the way they aren't equal persons with equal rights. Even when we're trying to work outside some of the cultural norms, it's hard to bust through everything ... just the fact that the parent is legally responsible for what a teen does shifts the relationship.

I love the Little House books! We're read them a couple of times. I'm struck by, and I commented to my daughter, how incredibly competent both Ma and Pa were. Imagine building your own house out of trees you hauled yourself, without a sawmill or much more than an ax and hammer? Work was so tangible back then. They farmed. Pa hunted. He built things. Here we are on the computer ... do they really get that we're working and not playing a computer game? I've met adults who don't think we're working!

I think, though, we have ways of passing on our values. We can express why we can't play now, because we agreed to finish work on something, and we like to keep our promises, plus if we didn't keep them, our bosses might not want to keep paying us. We can express that we do certain things because people in a family help each other, and it wouldn't be fair if some people helped and other people never helped. I think often people hate being told to do, but at the same time they do like helping. I know my daughter loves to do certain jobs, like mopping or using something that seems kind of like doing the grownup job, while hating to pick up certain things that are spread all over the living room floor. She also likes earning things ... she had a small job helping my neighbor empty maple sap buckets and was thrilled with it.

Hope there's some germ here that helps!

Well, Martha, that seems

Well, Martha, that seems pretty reasonable to me. Isn't there research that says "warm authoritarian" parenting is the most effective parenting style? That doesn't mean exercising total control, but it does mean setting limits and making sure actions have consequences, which is what it sounds to me like you're doing. One doesn't do kids any favors by shielding them from consequences or by making them feel entitled to praise or gratitude just for doing what they ought to be doing.

Of course, then there's a whole discussion about what does effective or successful parenting really mean. I think we're successful as parents if our kids take responsibility for themselves and their actions. I like your words "competent" and "honorable."

But then, I'm the less fun parent and the hardass, too. So what do I know?

Yr. Hildegarde

Let’s blame it on ...

... the hautboys. They were never around when we wanted one—or worse, needed one.

What a delightful surprise to find you here, my dearest Hildegarde! I shall never forget our romps ... especially through Algiers.