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Learning in Freedom

Welcome to Learning in Freedom, a blog all about the learning adventures (and mishaps) of the Allen family. My four children are unschooled, following their interests and passions every day and living the lives of their choosing. The purpose of this blog is to share our every day lives (and my not-so-humble opinons) with anyone interested in stopping by. We hope this will give a glimpse of how natural learning unfolds from day to day......

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Location: Jonesborough, Tennessee, United States

I was born and raised in the far north of Fairbanks Alaska where the moose trample your garden, northern lights dance and darkness rules the winter. I adore raspberries, tea, body painting, lazy nights watching movies and drinking wine, hiking, gardening, beekeeping, writing, creating art and traveling. I live with my husband Keith (the brilliant human behind Keith Dixon Studios) and the five children we brought into our relationship. My current career is in makeup artistry/body painting where I get to meet interesting people and paint diverse faces and bodies.

Friday, February 29, 2008

non-coercive parenting

Is there truly such a thing? Even in our striving to be non-coercive, there are times I act more coercively. I think the key is that I don't see it as a daily parenting tool. It's more of a last-resort or safety mechanism. The further we travel in this unschooling path, the more I see options other than parental coercion in fostering relationships of trust and solving family issues.

The topic came up in the comments section at CG's blog recently. I'd been meaning to write about this for some time, now seems to be a good one. Ill be accused of being a bad parent by more than one person by telling this story, but tell it I will.

Jalen was born with an intensity I was unprepared for. He was born with some sensitivities I couldn't understand. We did try the "you need to brush your teeth right now" tact a few times, though it always made me uncomfortable because after all it IS his body. Being the parent doesn't give you automatic rights over your child's body, though your longer experience on the earth often give you better foresight. Before he could talk (he didn't talk until around three years of age) we simply made attempts to brush his teeth, just like we had for the other children who were agreeable. Not him. So we kept them as clean as possible, while honoring his fierce denial of the brushing episodes. I could get them brushed about every third or fourth day if I was fast and distracting. Keep in mind, he chose his own toothbrushes and toothpastes, we made it as fun as possible. That only goes so far when you're a person that can throw up from coughing a bit too hard. He just hated the feel. So we didn't make a big deal about it. We trusted him.

Fast forward a few years (he's 7 now). He's been to the dentist and enjoyed the teeth cleaning. Had a rough time with the second visit that involved a much needed tooth-pulling, even throwing up and almost passing out (ya think he's still a bit sensitive?) but is still willing to go get the rest of the work done. He's developmentally more aware. A lot of his intense behaviors have changed dramatically over the last year.

I could have forced him. I could have had them tie him down and drug him up to get the work done. All along we talked about the options, about the possibilities, about my opinions and what he needed. All along his needs and thoughts were respected. I did not pull the "parenting trump card" (thank you Jon Kream for that phrase) and force anything against his will. Some will say that is our job as parents. I disagree. I believe that in spite of the childlike inability to see very far into the future, kids can and will make informed decisions about their bodies in a healthy home where they are respected.

I read the argument that if a toddler wanted beer and twinkies for breakfast every morning we would be remiss as parents to honor that choice. Seriously? I've NEVER met a small child that truly LIKED those foods for one. For two, even if those two options were always presented along with healthy choices, a small child will balance themselves out quite nicely. I've watched it happen. Beer and twinkies get OLD really fast I bet. Not that any of my children every liked beer. The few times they tasted a sip from an adult, they spit it out, wrinkled their nose and said "YUCK".

I think most German kids are raised on beer at mealtime and do just fine though. My babies and toddlers were mostly getting breastmilk anyway, which is preferable to most anything for them.:) Twinkies aren't very appealing when you have homebaked foods that taste better.

I think it's very natural for babies and toddlers to have limited choices by virtue of what is available within their homes or families. We always put out a variety of foods for them to snack on and they ate exactly what they needed at any given time. They also snacked off the adult plates during mealtimes, rather than sit and eat a plate of their own food. For the most part anyway. Small people graze. Give them some interesting, healthy choices and they'll graze right through it. As they get older, their worlds expand to include choices the parents didn't introduce. That's natural. They may want to try twinkies. So what?

The twinkies/beer argument just doesn't hold up in a home where the child is supported and given free choice. I've never known a human being to gorge on something for very long unless that item was limited to them. We quickly crave protein when eating too much sugar. Listening to our bodies is something even very young children can do. It's part of the learning process, just like everything else. I think those extreme arguments are used as a reason for parents to justify coercion. I don't think it shows much trust in a child's ability to choose well. If a parent is going to use coercion, then just go for it. I know of very loving and connected families where coercion is used, gently and judiciously and the children thrive. But to say that those of us who strive for non-coercion, are being negligent parents and that it's a damaging way to raise children...well, that'll get my hackles up every time.

I don't have beer drinking, twinkie eating, porn watching young children. Much to the dismay of parents that say "but they'll do ________(fill in the blank with every imaginable horror) if I don't force them not to" my children aren't fascinated with harmful things. They make choices that backfire occasionally...part of the learning process. They have a right to their own mistakes (called learning-takes by my dear friend Kelly Lovejoy), their own inner urgings that may be very different from what I think is "right" or "best".

They are themselves. They have a right to make their own choices. I am here to help make those choices available in a safe format and to explore the world alongside them without judgement of those choices. They can know my opinion without feeling the weight of judgment along with that opinion. It IS possible.

I think the question is, how far are we willing to extend trust? How much are we willing to be creative and get outside of the "I'm the parent so that's how it is" paradigm? How much CAN children be trusted?

More than most people believe. Enough to know that they wouldn't choose beer and twinkies over anything else in a healthy, connected home. Enough to know that non-coercion is not damaging or neglectful. It's the opposite.

13 Comments:

Blogger Deanne said...

Great post!

I think the hardest thing for me is letting go of my "foresight" about something that may cause my kids any unhappiness or pain, and trusting that whatever choice they make is really one they NEED to make. I need to accept that whatever the outcome is, it is what they need to learn and grow at that time in their lives. If they choose to accept my "wisdom", great! If not, I will be there for them with comfort (if needed), and congratulations on making the best choice for themselves.

(BTW, I think you are an awesome parent! :D )

12:05 PM  
Blogger laura said...

as a parent who has been on the side of forcing a child to brush, i can say that it is simply not worth it. silas and i had some rough go rounds when he was 4. i found myself angry and frustrated that he wouldn't brush...which led to my holding him on the bed to brush. kicking and screaming. which led to my crying on the kitchen floor every single night filled with guilt and frustration. after about a week or so of this, i let go. just let go. i was afraid that his teeth would rot out. but i let him do it his way, which wasn't really what i would call clean, but he was doing it on his own. that is not to say that i was cool and calm about it. i never was, but i never did try to hold him down ever again. he still doesn't brush as well as i'd like and sometimes i'll see this and ask him to give it another go and he will.

to this day, he can't stand for me or anyone to come near his mouth. he has a tooth that has been loose a good six months and the new tooth has come in behind it. i found myself at halloween in a coercive mood and tried to get him to let me pull it. there were tears and frustration all around. i still want to pull it. it's a control thing for me. as well as a desire to not see that tooth sticking out and the habit he has developed with his lip because of it. in the end, i know it will come out and he will be fine. but it drives me to distraction in the mean time.

i feel strongly that had i not physcially coerced him when he was 4, he might not be so freaked out about me trying to help him get this tooth out.

ren, you said to me on halloween that a dentist bill now was better than a shrink bill later. i think of that whenever i feel the coercive bug coming on.

5:09 PM  
Blogger LeaAnn said...

I'm really interested in reading the comments on this post. I have a sensitive child who although he did brush, he didn't do it very well because he couldn't stand the feel of the toothbrush. We tried everything from the finger thingys that you can use on the go to just plain fingers and he did better then. Still he ended up with a ton of dental problems and started to be embarrassed so after a lot of talking he decided to go to the dentist. The first dentist was horrible and made us feel like crap, plus no matter how much they tried to numb his mouth he insisted that he could still feel pain so we found a dentist who thought it best to put him under and do them all at once. That was really scary for him and me. The teeth got fixed but I still feel really guilty about his teeth getting that way in the first place. He still has problems by the way, years later wih his adult teeth so maybe they would have decayed even if he had brushed twenty times a day or maybe this is because of his earlier problems.(He also had some health problems that affected his teeth) Who knows but in hindsight sometimes I wonder if I should have insisted when he was younger.I consider myself pretty non coercive but he went through some horrible experiences, let alone the thousands of dollars spent to correct them. So....I'm on the fence here and look forward to reading the comments.

10:06 PM  
Blogger piscesgrrl said...

My youngest is a highly highly sensitive boy too. For what it's worth, when he was younger and I was more insistent that he brush (it never went so far as pinning him down, but he'd complain and I'd insist - he'd let me do it) he had 7 cavities upon his first dental visit. I was silently mortified until my friend - who definitely makes/insists on brushing - told me her son had 12! As I grew more into RU I began to give up the brushing struggle. I was sure he'd have more cavities the next time we went to the dentist because he was brushing far less without me harping on him. He had none.

Go figure.

He is still resistent to brushing, but I still suggest he do it. Last night, "Go brush teeth and get jammies on and we'll read some books." He usually does, but no more than once a day (evenings). We're due for a dental visit so we'll see!

I talk-talk-talk-talk to my kids about why I think certain things are important - like nutrition, hygiene, not leaving the woodburning stove door open. And not in a lecturing tone, just in an 'offering information' manner. I know they are open to adapting because their actions are proof. The more coercive, judging, demanding, and icky I get, the more they resist - and then it's not so much about the *thing* I'm trying to get them to do but about the fact that I'm pulling rank and infringing upon their autonomy. When they sniff an ulterior motive, the defensive walls come up without them even stopping to consider the actual issue at hand.

And then we've got two issues to deal with!

9:04 AM  
Blogger Ronnie said...

"Ill be accused of being a bad parent by more than one person by telling this story, but tell it I will."

I was about 3/4 through the post and still waiting for the bad-parent story, when it dawned on me that I was reading it. :-) You're a lovely mother, Ren.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Alex Polikowsky said...

Thanks Ren for this post. My older had cavities at 2 y.o. but he always brushed well and with his personality I would never force. Here I am and now dd has cavities at 2 y.o.and she does not really like brushing and I find myself forcing it on her sometimes.
The funny thing is that I tell people exactly what you say here but fear has been getting the best of me.
I just need a kick on the behind...

1:46 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

AWesome Ren!! I have been itching for a post from you. Trying to deal with newbies who just don't get it is difficult I needed a good read :)

I too have a sensitive intense child and he has opened my eyes to things that didn't exist with my other kids.

I do my best to honor and respect my kids needs. I don't force teeth brushing or anything else, I do not use force.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Stephanie S. said...

"They can know my opinion without feeling the weight of judgment along with that opinion. It IS possible."

This is my favorite. It pretty much wraps up all of ruing, and separates it from mainstream.
I've heard ruers accused of "being just like everybody else" (on my local hs board), such as "hurry up and eat or we'll be late to our movie", to which I replied, "actually we'd probably say 'wanna take it in the car?'", but the difference is that there is always a choice, and respected kids know that they are perfectly free to say "how 'bout this, instead?" Or "I have an idea....", or "No. Not now."
We know that they feel free to not be coerced, because we hear these things several times a day!
:) And are glad of it, too.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, are kids supposed to brush daily? :) For me, it's not a matter of coercing or not-coercing...I just plain forget to remind them, so they are basically on their own from 3 on up. My dentist says that the tendency to get cavities is pretty much hereditary. I have a kiddo that brushes very regularly and gets cavities at every visit. Others don't. My 6 year old rarely brushes (3 x a week maybe?) unless I notice her breath and remind her. She must not have too much tarter because her breath is rarely bad. Anyway, today we had a dentist visit so in the car I said "Oh, did you brush your teeth today?" And she said "Yes, 4 times." LOL I guess she made up for lost time. By the way, no cavities for her. :)

3:03 AM  
Blogger Ren said...

I believe most of it is genetics too. If brushing solved all teeth problems I might have been convinced that acting more coercively was worth it!;)

I really don't see how a parent can apply trust in some areas and not others. If we trust they will learn what they need when they're ready, then how can we separate food or anything else and not trust them?

Making a child eat something against their will is just plain wrong. And not healthy either...as much as some parents would like to believe it is.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Virginia said...

It was so wonderful to read this. I had been very interested in non-coercive parenting (ever heard of TCS?) even before I became pregnant. Moreover, I felt extreme anxiety over becoming a parent before I discovered this idea.

I think you hit the nail on the head with: "Even in our striving to be non-coercive, there are times I act more coercively. I think the key is that I don't see it as a daily parenting tool." This is the essential difference. I would take it a step further and say that although in parenting some coercion is probably inevitable, coercion is *never* a parenting tool, and *always* a mistake. If we decide ahead of time that in some particular situation it is "okay" to coerce, we throw away our ability to come up with a better solution.

On a more specific note about the tooth brushing issue--we've never forced brushing. We're very casual about it. They don't brush very well. They rarely allow me to examine or brush their teeth myself. Sometimes they'll brush six times a day, followed by six days of no brushing at all. You get the idea. We have Lydia, 5, and Miriam, 3, by the way.

Shortly before Lydia's first birthday, all four of her top incisors basically rotted before my eyes. This followed closely after my father, who has horrible teeth, moved into our home. I politely asked him not to share utensils or drinks with Lydia (i.e. don't get your rotten saliva in my baby's clean mouth, jerk!). He could not be bothered

What followed was incredibly expensive and fairly traumatic dental work--which also turned out to be totally unnecessary. The incisors are not necessary to preserve proper tooth spacing (like molars and canines are), a fact I found out much too late, and which was certainly never mentioned by the dentist.

After refusing to coerce my baby to brush, I put her through oral surgery--my point being not that I should have forced her to brush, but that I should not have subjected her to the dental work. My baby got three porcelain crowns, one of which did not even last the six weeks to the follow-up visit, and none of which lasted to her third birthday.

Miriam, whose oral hygiene has been every bit as lax as her sister's, has zero tooth problems.

1:02 AM  
Blogger Kelly Hogaboom said...

This post is from long ago but I just found it today. I want to chime in with support on this article. Also: very brave of you to write it out. Thank you, and I will be forwarding it to my husband and some non-coercive parenting friends!

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have made your blog more interesting than most that I read. Thanks for that:0).

9:39 AM  

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