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Let Us Treat Our Children as Equals

“And I try to laugh
At whatever life brings
Cause when I look down
I just miss all the good stuff
When I look up
I just trip over things”
-Ani Difranco – As is

I love Ani Difranco. I took my daughter to see her when she was like 10 years old I think. @Rachel Feliz I remember you were at that concert.

At one point Ani forgot the words to her own song. She was so cool about it. She asked the audience to remind her and we all sang together. It was such a beautiful moment.

It felt like a unity in that concert hall. Her profound acceptance of herself drew us all in. We became one.

The kid and I talked about it for quite a while afterward. It made an impression on us both. I always like to follow up any experience we have. The follow up is a great way to establish a fun co-exploring co-learning relationship.

“Remember when Ani forgot the lyrics the other day. I loved that moment. I want to feel that comfortable with who I am and with my mistakes.”

“Ya me too!”

We are together.
Neither of us look up or down at each other.
There is no hierarchy between us.

This is still an uncommon thing, to relate to kids with no hierarchy, but it is a growing awareness. We don’t have to be above our kids to guide them.

Part of our role as guides is to help them learn (I say help learn instead of teach) deep values, life skills, communication and relationship skills, emotional regulation and expression skills… and the list goes on.

We can help them learn these important things and still hold them as our equals. We can work with them non-coercively. Engage with them collaboratively and cooperatively.

The thing about having a hierarchy between us is we teach them one human is above another. It doesn’t matter what the reason is. If one person is above another then one person is below.

We almost force them into looking up and down at people. Not up as in admiring a positive role model. This is up as in, I’m not as good. I’m not worthy. I’ll never be successful. I’m not enough.

Looking down, thinking that someone else is on a lower level than you is such a dangerous thought. The reason for the lower status starts out because of the parent child dynamic, but it often manifests later judgment based on race, social status, gender, sexual preference and so on.

Once the mindset is set we are prone to looking for the up and down. The up and the down come together. That means we ourselves can never be okay. We’ll always be down because someone where out there someone is up. Someone is always above us.

How often do you see someone putting another person down (most often a child, but could be anyone) and it’s so clear they’re compensating for their own lack of self-worth and self-love. I see it every time I leave the house.

I DO IT every time I leave the house. Help me Divine one I’m trying, but I was raised traditionally so I am infected with the up down mindset. This is the source of so many of my insecurities. (sorry mom. It wasn’t your fault. I know it hurts, but I love you and you were doing your best.)

I want to spare my kid from that fate.
She knows in her bones we are equals.

Recently I asked her what it would feel like if I ever said “No” to her.

We both paused and there was a silence as we tried to imagine it. Neither of us could. We both shook our heads!

She then said that if I ever did say no to her that she’d trust it because I never say no to her and if I did say no to her I would have to have a really good reason.

I want to clarify that what I mean by “I don’t say no” is I don’t say no from a place of authority. Like I’m the parent and I’m saying No you can’t have a second bowl of ice cream before dinner.

That can only happen if one person has power over another. I worked very hard to not have authority over my daughter. The concepts of authority and equals do not dance together very well. Even now at 22 I still pay close attention to how we relate to each other. After over 2 decades of practice I still have to be vigilant.

Even though I don’t say no, sometimes I will say “I can’t” when it’s honest, which is very different from no.

However it’s true that most of the time I make an effort to say yes. In the early days my parenting I used to always practice “10 yeses for every no”.

I remember when my kid got too heavy for me to spin around. I used to have a bad back. I had a collection of back braces. Those who knew me in the early days of my dancing know how broken I was physically.

Fortunately now I’m much healthier and stronger. In those days however there came a point I just couldn’t lift her and spin her around. I had to say “I Can’t”.

We both felt the grief of the loss. We both were upset I had to say I can’t. We felt it together, I empathized and spoke it out loud. Once we had travelled along the emotional journey together then we were able to think of fun replacements for that activity. We experienced it as equals.

The experience brought us closer together and she learned about how to deal with loss and grief. She had a lived experience of moving through her emotions without having to run from them. She was safe becasue she felt me with her so she could really be with her feelings.

This usually brings us out the other side into more self-understanding and integration. When parents ask about how to teach emotional regulation, this is the type of thing that does it on a deep level.

I would love to hear what you think about all this. I believe it is important for us as parents and as people to move beyond the “up down mindset” to a “collaborative relationship of equals” mindset. This is where we become life long Learning Partners. This is where harmony and community are born.

I’m not much for boundaries. Life saving ones, yes. Other than that I find they don’t serve to teach the deep lessons that I care about.

I chose the ice cream example quite on purpose!
My goal with food is to help my daughter learn to make intelligent choices for herself. Inspiring Self-Motivated Self-Regulation (SMSR) around food is so important.

Creating any kind of power struggle, coercion or shame based relationship with food or their bodies is going to work against that. The food is going to take on other meanings, like power, comfort, autonomy.

This is why I have always tried to say yes to any food request. I combine this with a comprehensive, non-coercive and hopefully quite enjoyable and connecting education and inspiration plan around caring for the body and having a positive relationship with food.

We explore the different uses for food. Health and nutrition, social interactions, enjoyment of taste and texture. We even pay attention to and appreciate the anticipation of hunger and the feeling of a full belly. Don’t forget about the magic of digestion and ELIMINATION!

There is so much we miss by saying No you can’t have ice cream till after dinner.

Expanding this concept of choosing co-exploring instead of boundary setting to every area of life creates a whole-being, whole-relationship transformation.

That is the classic approach. The idea being that we control certain aspects of our kids lives until we think they’re capable of managing it on their own.

So we put boundaries, limits and rules in place to maintain some safety, order and control.

The 2 main reasons I avoid that approach/mindset are 1) that it’s based on power and coercion and 2) it’s significantly less effective, both in the short and long term.

When looking at the implications of saying no to ice cream, I imagine putting myself in their place and think about what I’m actually learning and feeling.

I’m not learning to tune into my body and see what it wants. I’m not learning to feel into how different foods affect my body and seeing which ones feel good and which ones don’t. I’m not even learning that some foods are healthy and some aren’t, I’m just learning that my parents think some are and aren’t.

In fact at 4 I’m not even sure what nutritious means to me? Why should I care about it? Why is it more important than my freedom and joy? It certainly doesn’t make me want to pay attention to what’s nutritious and good for my body.

I really try to put myself in the 4 year old mindset/emotionset wanting ice cream and being told no.

I am learning to deny my own body intuition and feelings to follow an external authority. I am learning that my parents don’t trust my body wisdom so it must be wrong.

I am learning that I am definitely not equals with my parents. I am learning that my freedom and consent can be over ridden by someone who has more power than I, even if they say they love me.

I know all this seems harsh and I’m sorry for that. I don’t mean to be so, but if you watch for these things in your kid when they melt down in those No moments, you’ll likely see them.

The thing about this approach is there’s no way to do it without holding power over our kids. I remember being that age and feeling those feelings so clearly. My attention was always on managing the coercion in my environment. How can I get what I want? How can I preserve my power, autonomy and dignity?

From the very beginning I was aware that this was a radically different way to treat kids. Anyone who saw me interact with her had a strong reaction. It seemed irresponsible and even dangerous!

And yet the cost of not doing it felt too high to me.

Another imagination game I play is I pretend that I’m playing out a similar situation with an adult like my partner or a close friend… maybe my closest friend to make it as accurate as possible.

I look at the situation both giving and receiving the No.

Me (in my own home): I’d like some ice cream, that would make me happy right now.

My partner: I’ve just cooked and you’ll spoil your dinner. (perfectly reasonable expression of needs and concern)

Me: Well I’m going to have some anyway. I’m in the mood.

Partner: No. You can have some after dinner. I want you to eat healthy.

Me: [Gets up to get ice cream myself]

Partner: [Blocks me physically]

Now what?

With adults this is going no where pleasant. With kids it’s holding a boundary because we want to care for them.

While I know it’s terribly inconvenient at times, most of the time actually, I have always endeavoured to choose autonomy and consent over any practical concern. Again the relational cost was just too high for me.

I talk about the three relationships we’re helping our kids develop.

1) Relationship with Self
2) Relationship with Parent(s)
3) Relationship with the Environment

Even though it might seem like just an ice cream I believe that saying no from the position of authority and power has a profound and cumulutive effect. It creates stress and unhelpful patterns in all three relationships.

Eventually the boundaries get dropped in one of two ways. First we can let them go voluntarily and enter into what I call a Whole-Being Co-Learning relationship of equals with our kids. It’s scary because we are letting go of the control that is inherent in the traditional parenting paradigm.


Second the kid reaches a point where they realize they don’t have to listen regardless of the consequences. I still remember the day I realized I could do what I wanted. The control was suddenly gone.

In this case we’re going to be playing catch up, trying to instill positive connection and communication patterns where previously we had used our systemic power.

I can’t tell you the number of parents I’ve helped through this stage. It often appears around 7-10 yrs. Indications of it start as young as your kids, but it really settles in when they’re a bit older.

It’s still possible to establish new patterns, but the transition stage is so challenging and the work is intense.

Part of the conflict comes because when we get to those moments where parents feel they must hold a limit, we don’t have collaborative patterns set up to navigate them effectively. It’s always been a power situation.

Once the power shifts more to them, the non-collaborative patterns are still set. This is a large part of where defiance and rebellion in youth comes from.

It’s profoundly worth putting in the effort to establish stable and resilient collaboration, communication and cooperation patterns early on. The deeper we go into the non-coercive mindset the deeper our kids let us into their hearts and minds.

One of my sayings is:

Coercive influence decreases over time.
Relational influence increases over time.

In summary:
-I don’t say NO to the ice cream.
-Saying no requires power and authority
-My piority is on relationship, autonomy and consent
-I educate non-coercively through our
-Whole-Being Co-Learning relationship of equals (ie, this isn’t permissive, but deeply involved)
-This approach is, in my opinion, more human, kind and more effective.

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