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Dear Anti-SuperNanny,
I’ve heard a lot of talk about “non-coercive parenting” lately.  I don’t really understand it, but I’m curious to know more.  My child won’t do what he’s told unless I get loud or physically move him to where he needs to be.  Needless to say, that’s incredibly frustrating for both of us, and I can’t help but feel there’s a better way.  We’ve tried limiting his privileges and even threatening spanking (but I can’t bring myself to do it).  But I have some friends who swear by this non-coercive principle and, I’ll admit, their kids are really well-behaved.  But I just don’t get how it works – so kids just do what they want, when they want, on their own terms?  Isn’t that just a recipe for disaster?  Don’t they need some kind of routine and expectations? -Looking For a Better Way

 ASN: LFBW, you are absolutely correct that children need routine and expectations.  As humans, we are typically creatures of habit, even the most spontaneous of us.  We each have our own little habits and rituals that we find comforting.  Routine and expectation does just that – it comforts children.  When a child knows what to expect next, she or he can move forward confidently.

Non-coercive parenting does not do away with routine and expectations.  It does not give children a “free pass” to idle their time away or be careless with their things.  It must not be mixed up with permissive parenting.  Rather, non-coercive parenting is about setting and respecting boundaries, about teaching the concept of consent.

It takes practice, and some parents find themselves in the midst of a pendulum swing while they try to figure it out.  In attempting to communicate without coercion, they may find themselves relaxing almost too much, and then revert to their former habits of yelling to be heard.  For those of us who were raised to be ever-obedient and not to question authority, it can be particularly challenging – we’re sailing uncharted waters, here.

It is my opinion that, if we are raising our children to be caring, compassionate, and involved community members as adults, we must always treat them as caring, compassionate, and involved community members.  We must always expect them to be responsible and accountable for themselves. So of course, we must enforce our values and uphold our rules (values before rules, folks – rules were made to be bent and broken); of course we must have expectations and say “no” from time to time.  Of course we must utilize consequences.  But we do not need to resorts to threats and punishment, or wheedling and cajoling.

When we look at our household as an organization, we can see ourselves as parents in the role of coordinator.  Notice, I didn’t say, “boss.”  There’s a reason for this.  A coordinator is one who streamlines functions, who organizes activities and details, who makes the organization run smoothly by way of delegation.  A boss is one who oversees, who gives commands, and the word “boss” connotes a person who is somehow removed from the actual tasks that must be done, carries a mental visual of someone sitting in a chair behind a desk.  The word “coordinator” brings to mind someone who has their hands in the dirt with everyone else, who communicates and listens, and – well – coordinates.

You are a coordinator.  And your children are not your employees or underlings, they are the people who need your help to streamline things.

Just shifting your thinking this way can change the way you approach conflicts with your children.  Instead of finding yourself in the midst of a power struggle, you can use the advantage of perspective to lay it all out for your children. Take Sally, for example.

Sally has a 6 year old daughter, Madi, who, after seeing “Tangled” decided she would grow her hair out just as long as Rapunzel. After about a week, though, Madi stopped brushing her hair. Sally would find herself swinging back and forth – she would ask Madi to brush her hair, with no follow up, until Madi’s hair grew knotty in the back. Then Sally, aghast at what she called her daughter’s “rat’s nest” would sit the child down and brush her hair out for her, to her daughter’s tearful protests.

Sally had her own issues with forced hair maintenance: When she was a child, her mother brushed her hair roughly until one day, when she was 9, she was handed a brush and told she was on her own. Sally was overwhelmed because she didn’t know the first thing about styling her own hair, but she tried, and just when she felt she was getting good at it, her mother took her to get her long curls cut off, because she wasn’t taking good enough care of it. Sally swore Madi would never have to go through the same experience, but now, looking at her daughter’s messy hair and thinking of the power struggles, she was ready to throw in the towel.

Sally talked to a friend, who happened to mention that she was having similar issues with her own daughter. Her friend had another idea that hadn’t occurred to Sally, though. She said, “My daughter is in charge of her body at all times. I want her to know that. Just like I don’t want anyone forcing themselves on her, I won’t force hair-grooming.” A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, these words really resonated with Sally. She decided her friend was absolutely right about children needing to have total control over their bodies, but she struggled. “If I don’t brush my daughter’s hair, I’m afraid the school will call the authorities and report neglect,” she bemoaned. “And she has a performance coming up in a couple of weeks, and she can’t look like a wild-woman for that!”

Her friend had a novel idea. “Talk to her,” she said. “Tell her what you’re worried about, see what she says.” Sally was flabbergasted. Talk to my 6 year old?? Nevertheless, as skeptical as she was, she tried it. And she was surprised.

Sally told Madi her worries about the school being concerned about neglect, and about looking nice for the performance. Offhand, she mentioned something about a “dreadlock” in the back of her head, which got Madi’s attention. They looked at pictures of people with dreadlocks, and Madi fell in love. She asked if she could try it. Sally remembered how much work it took to start dreads from her own experiment with them in college, and shared those memories with her daughter. Madi decided to wait until after the performance, and then she would try it out. In the meantime, she would brush her hair everyday except on the weekends, if Mom bought plenty of detangler. Still a week later, Madi decided she wanted a hair cut on her own (which, Sally admitted, was a relief – she wasn’t sure how she’d feel about a dready-headed 6 year old!).

Cards on the table, now: It’s not always this easy.  Sometimes you’ll have to try different angles, and sometimes you’ll have to let the consequences unfold for themselves.  Sometimes you’ll have to get creative.  One mother asked her son to set the table.  He was watching TV and couldn’t pull himself away.  As a result, when dinner was ready, there were no dishes on the table – so mom served the food directly on the table.  The family had a good laugh, and her son sheepishly apologized – and after dinner, he cleaned up the mess all by himself.  And he learned to set the table when Mom asked.

Sometimes the consequences happen on their own and do the work for you.  Another parent, a father this time, spent an entire night searching for his 15 year old daughter on the eve of her birthday.  She’d snuck out to be with friends.  Expecting the worst, he found her at her best friend’s house at 4:30 in the morning.  He was relieved to find she was sober, and just hanging out in her friend’s basement talking, but deeply concerned at the implications of the choices she’d been making.  He and her mother had found evidence of other questionable decisions she’d made, and so, instead of sending her to bed for a two hour nap when he brought her home, they stayed up talking.  At 6:30, it was time to get ready for school – which, he pointed out, she was still expected to go to and do well in, despite her lack of sleep, because it was her choice to forego rest.  He bought her a cappuccino and took her to school.   Typically, the family would celebrate a birthday by going out and eating dinner and coming home for games or movies – but the entire family was so tired, after school they had a quick dinner and everyone went to bed early.  It wasn’t a perfect solution – in spite of the fact that they had nailed the windows shut, she did sneak out one more time.  But the allure was lost for her.  The night-time world had somehow lost its magical feeling and she just didn’t care to go out at night anymore.

Granted, the windows being nailed shut isn’t exactly non-coercive parenting, but the above example illustrates nicely how consequences can be effortlessly used to uphold a family’s values and expectations.

Good luck!  I hope this helps you find that better way you were looking for!

-A.S.N.

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