Our 5-year-old lives in a house without rules. No rules?! What kind of anarchy is that?! The best kind. We replaced rules with values. We honor other people and their feelings, we honor a life free of violence and filled with love, we honor our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. And thus, our behavior stems from our values. We don’t have to make up rules, we use our critical thinking skills to determine how to approach a situation. We don’t memorize a list of do’s and don’ts, we act in accordance to our conscience.
In a household with children that means we don’t hit each other not because it is against the rules, but because it would hurt another person’s feelings. We do not tap dance at three’oclock in the morning in our second story apartment, not because it’s against the rules but because it would be a pretty crummy thing to do to our downstairs neighbors. We cover our mouths when we sneeze, not to follow some rules, but because it would make other people sick. In other words, we act in this world, not following arbitrary rules, but following our conscience and moral compass. We do not act in this world avoiding punishment or expecting reward, but out of genuine concern and connection to others. We are our own authority.
Here are three of the main actions that guide our rule-free life.
- We label emotions. As parents we talk about our feelings, and we make room for theirs. We identify their emotions, and honor them. We constantly practice being in the shoes of another. By doing this, we raise empathic children that will consider the way their actions impact those around them. They will understand that their choices matter, that they matter, that everything we do has ripples.
Examples of how to explain and model this to a child: It hurts my feelings when you say x. It hurts me when you pull my hair. And also modeling empathy: The neighbor would be really happy if we bake her some cookies. The dog would love some scratches. As vegans, we talk of how cow mothers are so sad to be separated from their babies in order for people to steal their milk.
This also means that when there are tantrums, as it is bound to happen, no child is tantrum-free, the parent response is “I can see that you are angry. Why do you think that is?” by talking it out, hearing the legitimate reasons for their frustrations, we can act with empathy towards them: “I’m sorry you feel overwhelmed. What if we do x or y to fix it?” Sometimes their emotions overpower them, and they are unable to reason. In these cases, offering love and patience until it passes is the best course of action, followed by a gentle discussion on what happened.
- We follow natural consequences. We talk about cause and effect from an early age. This teaches them that our behavior has consequences, not arbitrary ones, but real ones, natural ones. We don’t speed on the highway because we will get a ticket (arbitrary consequence), we don’t speed so that we are safe and don’t lose control of the vehicle (natural consequence). “If you cough on my face, I will also be sick. It will make mom feel sad and crummy. And she won’t have a lot of energy to play.” (labeling emotion AND natural consequence)
When we look at natural consequences, we are also less likely to engage in risky behavior, because we do not concern ourselves with an abstract arbitrary authority, but with very real, personal, concrete reasons.
- Allow auto-determination. If we rid our parenting of arbitrary rules, this means we must allow auto-determination and that means:
- We must allow self-expression. Their body is their body. If they want to cut their hair or not cut their hair. Guess what? It’s their hair. And so on. We are asked a lot, well what if they don’t want to wear their coat and it’s cold outside? (this also falls under natural consequence.) Well then once they go outside they will feel cold and ask for their coat. You can bring their coat with you in case they want it. Next time that it’s cold and they don’t want to wear it, you can remind them of this instance. Repeat as necessary, and eventually they will get it.
- We must allow decision-making. What if my child decides they don’t want to go to sleep at [insert arbitrary hour]? We do not have set bed times in our house. If everyone else is tired and went to sleep, anyone who is not tired can stay up as long as they don’t disturb those that are sleeping. It means quiet time. If they absolutely must wake up early in the morning and they are tired, see above about natural consequences.
We approach our children with respect, and create healthy partnerships with them. We often want our children to grow up to be healthy, assertive, successful adults, but we thwart their assertiveness as children and expect obedience. Parents are not masters and dictators, we are facilitators and guides. When we gently steer our children towards independence and self-actualization, with empathy and compassion, we will find that they shine brighter than we as parents ever imagined possible. It’s easy to instill fear of punishment and expectancy of reward, and have an obedient child; being a parent facilitator, respecting our children enough to believe that they can live according to values is not always a walk in the park. But with patience, understanding, and encouragement, we can lead peacefully. Their confident, beaming, courageous and compassionate selves makes everything worth it.