One morning last September, Melanie Leavey's six-year-old daughter, Savannah, insisted on wearing a Halloween cat costume instead of normal clothes. She wore it all day long, and the next too. Eventually, she agreed to take off the costume so it could be washed, but the minute it was laundered, she pulled it on again. Weeks passed, then months. It wasn't until February, almost six months later, that Savannah finally decided to put the cat costume to rest.
But at no point did her mother try to make Savannah stop wearing it, says Ms. Leavey, who lives in Burlington, Ont., with her husband Brandt, Savannah and Sebastian, age 4.
Getting Savannah dressed in the morning had long been a battle. "I tried all the mainstream parenting guru advice, but nothing worked," she says.
So, Ms. Leavey began to practise consensual living, a set of principles designed to help family members understand each other's feelings and meet one another's needs.
Ever since her daughter got the chance to assert her autonomy in her clothing choices, Ms. Leavey says, helping her get dressed in the morning has been "a piece of cake."
In the consensual living model, father doesn't know best. Neither does mom. Instead, parents and children are equal partners in family life, according to the principles laid out at consensual-living.com.
Founded in 2006 by a group of families in North Carolina, consensual living is gaining ground in alternative parenting communities and online, including a Yahoo group with about 900 members.
Devotees study books such as Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication, and they consider parenting based on punishment and reward structures to be "coercive."
In contrast, "consensual" parenting is non-hierarchical.
"When parents put themselves in the role as authorities, they may believe they are doing it 'for the child's good,' " writes one of the movement's co-founders, Anna Brown, "but they could be missing an opportunity to have more connected relationships with their children."
Lindsay Hollett of Nanaimo, B.C., says that she began to snap less with her husband, Craig, and her 18-month-old daughter, Kahlan, after she adopted the consensual-living mindset about a year ago.
Her days became more relaxed when she focused more on Kahlan's needs, she says. If she had a doctor's appointment but her daughter was feeling grumpy, for example, Ms. Hollett would not force Kahlan to wait with her to see the doctor. Instead, Ms. Hollett might cancel the appointment or arrange alternative child care, she says.
Listening to her child's feelings doesn't mean that every last thing is negotiable, such as being strapped in a car seat, she says. But if they have to go somewhere, she adds, "I'll do everything I can to make the car-seat ride more comfortable."
For now, Ms. Hollett says, the onus is on her to be a role model for consensual living principles such as empathy and mutual respect for her daughter. As Kahlan grows older, though, "it won't just be me empathizing with her."
Understanding a child's developmental stage is a crucial aspect of parenting, according to Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and author of Breaking the Good Mom Myth and the recently released Honey, I Wrecked the Kids.
But, she adds, children must be taught to respect a higher authority, such as social expectations. Cancelling an appointment because of a child's mood sends the wrong message, Ms. Schafer says. "It's a parent's job to socialize a child."
Biological needs should be non-negotiable as well, Ms. Schafer says. For example, it doesn't make sense to allow a three-year-old to decide for himself when he's tired - a recent subject of debate on the consensual living Yahoo group.
"Little bodies need to sleep," Ms. Schafer says.
Parents who don't set limits with their children risk pampering them, Ms. Schafer says, "and that is basically the root of adult neurotic behaviour."
Echota Keller, a mother in Langley, B.C., says that she creates boundaries with her three-year-old son, Kiernen, while "giving him the space to be his own person."
In daily life, she makes a practice of letting him know what her intentions are, she says, "and asking him if that's going to work for him."
Recently, the principles of consensual living have helped her cope with her son's hitting stage, she says.
When Kiernen strikes another child, Ms. Keller asks him what he's feeling and whether he'd like to express his anger or frustration in another way, such as using words or hitting a pillow.
She tells him it's not okay to hit others, but she and her husband, Josh, do not force Kiernen to say he's sorry. "If he's going to apologize, we want it to be authentic," Ms. Keller says.
According to Ms. Leavey of Burlington, using consensual living with small children is a time-consuming process, but the principles are equally well suited to children and adults.
The biggest shift in family life has been to make sure everyone is heard, Ms. Leavey says. The family now works as a cohesive unit, she adds. "There are many less tantrums - and not just on the children's part."
Consensual living 101
- Everyone's wants and needs are equally valid, regardless of age.
- Children can be trusted to know their own minds and bodies.
- Punishments and rewards are tools of manipulation, unneeded when family members work as a team.
- There is a creative solution that works for everyone.
- Each family member has a positive intent and desires harmony.
- When all are secure that their needs will be met, they will branch out and help others meet their needs.
- In a conflict, identify the underlying needs - usually there are several ways they can be met.
- Pay attention to the underlying needs in someone who is hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT). Sometimes addressing biological needs helps get everyone back on track.
- Otherwise, explore underlying needs through validation ("You're feeling sad that we're about to leave the toy store, aren't you?") and clarification ("What I hear you saying is that you want more time to look at the marbles, right?").
- Once others feel heard, revert to "I" statements to express your own needs ("I want to head home so there's enough time to make dinner before everyone gets really hungry").
- Think outside the box with other family members, including children, to come up with a solution for each situation.