Parenting beyond obedience: Collaborative parenting
The moment Vincent and I arrived in our relationship, a new field of awareness opened up to me, which is the field of parenting. I listened to his stories about his connection with his children and his experiences with other parents. He shared with me how often he felt confused when he tried to set rules, and his body was telling him something else through uncomfortable feelings. He tried to parent the way he saw others do it and how he knew it from his own childhood. Yet, it didn’t work for him. When I got pregnant with Pepijn and started following the Parent Peer Leadership Program, created by late Inbal Kashtan, my eyes opened further to the world of parenting. And last year, when together we joined a course with Miki and Arnina Kashtan called “Parenting Without Obedience”, we started understanding on a more systemic level how to make sense of what is so important to us.
Now I am mothering my own child. And every day, from what I see happening around me, it becomes clearer to me that the vast majority of parents act upon a set of rules and boundaries. And I recognize inside of myself how that is also the most familiar way of parenting for me. Yet, I, the organism that I am, wants to align with nature and with life. And this set of rules does not resonate with me. In me, there is only one option and therefore it is easy to choose how I want to be with children. In this piece, I will write about my experiences with my son and children and parents around us and reflect on it from my perspective on parenting.
Last week when I was at the playground, my son Pepijn was playing in a pool of sand and water after a hefty rainfall. He had a blast, splashing with his hands, covering his legs with sand and water, making sounds of excitement. It was such a pleasure for my eyes and ears to see him full of joy and exploration. A kid came to me; I'm guessing he was about 4 years old. He told me that Pepijn wasn't allowed to play in the mud. I asked him if he was worried about Pepijn getting all wet and dirty. "No", he said, "mama says you can not play in the mud". From the kid's face, I guessed that he would have loved to play in the mud. He seemed hypnotized by the view of Pepijn having fun. I think he was craving to put his hands in the sand. After a conversation with him, I understood that he didn't know the reason behind his mom's rule. He simply was told not to play in the pool of sand and water.
Another conversation I recently picked up at a community farm was between a girl, I'm guessing 3 years old, and her grandmother. The grandmother wanted to leave. The girl wanted to stay. She started to cry silently. The grandmother told her, "Just be still now and sit in the stroller. Remember we agreed that you wouldn't cry today?". The girl stopped crying and went sitting in the stroller. The grandmother said, "Very good, you are a big girl". The grandmother then looked up and smiled at me. From the expression on her face, I understood she was proud. By looking at me, perhaps she was looking for companionship in her way of parenting.
Those are just two examples of almost everyday encounters I see happening around me. I have wept about many of them. It is painful for me to see how I believe the kids' needs are not being seen. And how their liveliness, curiosity, emotional release, expression, exploration, and joy are limited by what I see as arbitrary rules. Why those rules are there is unclear to the children, yet, there are rules to be followed. "You can not sit on the table", "you can not speak with your mouth full", "you have to finish your plate", "you can not touch that", "leave those people alone", "stop crying", because "remember what we agreed on?" and "we don't do that here".
Now it might sound to you as if I am blaming the parents here. But that is not how it lives in me. I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the parents. In my experience setting arbitrary rules yet experiencing dissonance in the body can be very painful. I heard a father in the neighbourhood where I live once say: "Sometimes I just have to put my feelings aside". My heart was crying to hear that. From his facial expression and those words, I understood that he has access to the connection with the needs of his children. Yet, some belief in him told him that he had to set boundaries.
What I understand from it is that those rules are made to bring clarity in communication with children and ease the parents. Yet, the result often is an internal struggle in the parents and confusion in the children. And the reasons why those rules are there are unclear. When the rules are broken, a set of punitive rules is being created. With the same lack of clarity about what need is being met with the punishments.
The roots of obedience
In my understanding, parenting in the way I describe above is inherent to the patriarchal society. In the article Parenting Without Obedience Miki and Arnina Kashtan wrote:
“Patriarchy, as we understand it, emerges from a fundamental separation from self, other, life, and nature. As such, reproducing patriarchy requires obedience so each new generation will internalize the separation and continue enacting patriarchal ways of being at all levels.”
Being raised in patriarchal cultures and communities, parents tend to see no other way than to teach their children to obey. Within patriarchy, children have to learn how to behave according to the norms; otherwise, they won’t survive. Raising their children with clear rules and boundaries in the parents’ minds will support them in building their own lives. It will support them in school, where similar patriarchal structures are being applied.
When coming back from a walk one day, just before our dinner time, I encountered a lady sitting on a bench in the street. She started speaking to me. I stopped and listened to her. Pepijn, who I imagine was hungry and tired and wanted to go home, began to cry. I noticed I was hungry and tired myself too. I told her we would move on. She said, “Oh, I can see who is the boss here. I hope he doesn’t always get what he wants.”
There seems to be an assumption that when parents actually listen to their children’s message, connect to their needs, and make choices that meet those needs, the parents let their children rule. An idea is that when parents don’t make clear “who is the boss,” the children will take over. And that when parents are choosing to meet the needs of their children, they will become spoiled. And indeed, I see some parents turning it around. They seem lost in how to care for themselves and for their children at the same time. And they are afraid to raise their children in a way that will damage them. They choose to listen to their children and forget to listen to their own needs.
Just as much as I feel sad for parents that are unable to connect to the needs of their children, I feel sad for parents that are doing everything the child is asking for. Often out of fear to be a bad parent. Usually a reaction to what they themselves have encountered as children, being raised with rules and punishment. In a way, this style of parenting comes forward from the same place. The power over structure turns around. It implies that someone has to make the rules. Someone has to be “the boss”. So if not the parents, then the children will decide.
Meeting in the middle
In a recent conversation with a father, as a reaction to what he understood about my way of parenting and a conflict that arose from that moment, he expressed his irritation about parents who let their children be completely free to do whatever they want. I told him that I don’t resonate with that explanation of parenting. I don’t want my children to do everything I ask, and I don’t want my children always to decide what is happening. He said, “I’m sure we can find each other in the area in between then”.
Earlier, when I would find myself in a conversation like this, I felt stuck. I wasn’t able to get clear why I didn’t experience understanding. But this time, I saw it clearly. The area in between, too, is within the field of patriarchy. Whether parents make all the rules, let their children decide or meet somewhere in the middle. It is all from within the same way of thinking. None of it is connected to life in and around ourselves and others.
All needs on the table
In the article and the course, Arnina and Miki Kashtan created, they speak about parenting without obedience. And even though the way I want to parent indeed is without obedience, I like to approach it from another perspective. Rather than speaking about what it is not, I would like to talk about what it is. To me, collaborative parenting is a way of parenting in which I hold my own needs and my child’s needs in my awareness in every step I take. I don’t transform these needs into rules, as I believe rules are static and disconnected from life at the moment.
I want to create agreements in collaboration with my children. And I want us to hold those agreements with flexibility and openness to our needs at every moment. I want to live what I would like for my children to learn. I want to share my feelings, my needs, the impact that what someone does or says has on me. And I want to listen to all that is alive in them. I want to mourn when we don’t find ways to meet all of our needs, and I want to support my children in their own process of mourning. And I want to share my appreciation when they do or say something that contributes to my wellbeing and joy.
I grew up in a family where, without awareness, patriarchal programming was the thriving force. So did my parents, in an even more disconnected and (especially on my father’s side) violent way. And I recognize the patriarchal programming in myself. Even when I understand this and choose collaborative parenting every day, in my experience, reprogramming those patterns doesn’t come easy. In challenging moments, I want to be compassionate and gentle with myself.
I want to remember my intention. My vision is for all children to grow up connected to the life inside of them. In authenticity, with joy, play, exploration. And the intention to care for my own needs and those of my partner. I want to remember that even when those needs are not being met, we hold them with care and tenderness.
And I want to connect to some of the most essential key assumptions to me in NVC that I remember so clearly summed up in a video of teachings of Inbal Kashtan:
all human beings have the same needs (including children)
all of our actions are attempting to meet needs (including the actions of children)
I orient around needs (instead of around behaviour)
we are responsible for our feelings and actions (our children are not the cause)
giving is a joy (for parents and children)
I am closing this piece by sharing my personal experience and understanding of it. What I experience in my life is that the biggest struggle I often land on is that I don’t believe that I matter. And I think that this belief of ‘not mattering’ that I, and many around me, carry with me is born in the earliest years of life. So when I am with my son, it doesn’t really matter exactly what I say, but I want to have the intention to let him know that he matters. It doesn’t mean that I have to do what he is asking me to do all the time. But I want to say to him, “I see you, I hear you, you matter to me”. And this is what I always want to hold in my awareness and intention, no matter what words I use.
I end with a little story about mattering:
There is a child that grew up in a family with NVC practitioners.
Someone asks the child, “Is it then that all your needs all the time were fulfilled?”
The child replied, “No, but my needs were heard.”
I celebrate that nonviolent communication contributed to the awareness that I have and how I navigate my connection with children today. And I celebrate that I can stay connected to myself and to them in the same moment. That it becomes like a dance where both of our needs get met. I’m joyful about sharing examples with you from my life through the lens of nonviolent communication. It meets my need to contribute to the world I dream of. I’m curious to hear how it is for you to read this. If you want to read more of my experiences with parenting, please subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of this page. If you want to share how it was or have questions, I invite you to write below this post or send your response at email@example.com