Why should parents be the decision-makers in a family, asks Andreas Späth.
‘We’re trying to parent anarchically,’ I told my mom on the phone the other night. ‘That sounds like another one of your ridiculous ideas,’ she replied after reflecting for a split second.
I wasn’t terribly surprised by her response. To my mother and most other people in the world, anarchy simply means chaos, mayhem and wanton destruction. A word that can’t possibly be mentioned in the same sentence with responsible parenting.
It seems to me that much of what passes for traditional parenting assumes that the natural state of children is, in fact, one of anarchy in this negative sense. That left to their own devices and without constantly being told what to do, most kids would literally grow up to be horrible monsters.
There is another definition of anarchy which I think is perfectly compatible with parenting. To me, anarchism represents the absence of arbitrary hierarchies - the absence of people who tell you what to do just because they are older, richer, stronger or more influential than you. It tries to combine and balance maximum freedom for all individuals with maximum cooperation between them.
Exactly how this positive conception of anarchism is translated into the realm of the family is open to discussion, but a first step could be for parents to stop thinking of themselves as the dominant decision makers in their families and to adopt a role of advisor instead.
Rather than simply telling their kids what to do - which extra-murals and optional subjects to take at school, which breakfast cereal to eat and which TV program not to watch - anarchic parents would concentrate on giving their children options, information and advice which they can use to make decisions that work best for them. Of course you have more life experience than your children and of course it’s your duty to protect them from harm and danger, but that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of making responsible decisions on their own.
In a safe environment, children should be involved in decision making to the degree to which their own lives will be affected. I remember how our 10-year-old son Joey once stomped into the dining room in the early hours of the morning, silencing a somewhat raucous dinner party with a grumpy shout of ‘This noise is entirely unacceptable. We’re trying to sleep here!’ A fair point. As a member of our family he had just as much right to a good night’s sleep as we had to enjoy ourselves. After some debate, a happy compromise was reached.
Contrary to popular belief, anarchism doesn’t mean the absence of rules. We have a set of house rules stuck to our refrigerator door. The thing is, though, that we came up with these rules together as a family after discussing what was important to us. We try to make decisions which affect all of us - which movie to watch at the cinema / pizza or Chinese? / park or beach? - by consensus and if that doesn’t resolve the issue, by democratic vote.
Perhaps the point I’m trying to make was best put by A.S. Neill, one of the most radical proponents of giving children real freedom who, in the rather sexist nomenclature of his time, said that ‘the function of a child is to live his own life - not the life that his anxious parents think he should live.’
Think I’m just an irresponsible idiot? How much freedom should we give our kids and where do you personally draw the line?